Mod, Josh Singer, and Liz Hannah (larger than life)

At a special edition of the Columbia Journalism School’s Film Fridays series, The Post was screened last night in Pulitzer, followed by a conversation with the film’s two screenwriters. EIC Betsy Ladyzhets (who found some of the film’s moments of miscommunication between WaPo’s EIC and publisher hitting a little too close to home) attended, and was appropriately inspired.

Last night, the Columbia Journalism School hosted a free film screening of The Post, followed by a conversation with the film’s screenwriters, Liz Hannah and Josh Signer. The Post, Steven Spielberg’s award-winning film, tells the story of the editors and publisher at The Washington Post who published articles about the Pentagon Papers (a highly classified document detailing the United States’ involvement in Vietnam) in 1971.  The screening was part of the J School’s Film Fridays series; this series, sponsored by the duPont awards, usually highlights exceptional documentary film making, but they made an exception in this case for a film that is a bit more fictionalized. This film features both “brave journalism” and “incredible storytelling,” one of the event’s organizers explained, and would prove inspirational to young and old journalists alike.

After some incredibly greasy pizza and a few technical difficulties, the audience settled in to watch the movie. The lecture hall was packed, mostly with J School students but also with professors, older journalists, and other members of the public – and everyone was enraptured for the full length of the film. The Post is perfectly crafted for inspiration, of course. Meryl Streep (as Katherine Graham), Tom Hanks (as Ben Bradlee), and all the other actors are masters at building powerful, emotional characters, and they are reinforced by gorgeous shots of a newspaper at work, a score by John Williams, and lines that send a direct message about the current political climate.

The Post concluded, the credits rolled, and then the lights came up to reveal screenwriter Josh Singer sitting in the space where his film had just been projected. Liz Hannah quickly joined him, larger than life via the magic of Skype. Their conversation about the importance of telling powerful stories reinforced the feeling that the film itself had given me.

Hannah and Singer first discussed their respective backgrounds: Singer had previous experience with documentaries and historical film-making (he won an Academy Award for Spotlight), while this is Hannah’s first film. Then, Hannah spoke about the process of making The Post. She wrote the script in the summer of 2016, inspired by Katherine Graham’s autobiography. She explained that she had really related to Graham’s life and wanted to write a movie about her, but didn’t realize on what specific part of that life the movie should focus until reading Bed Bradlee’s memoir.

“This is the story of a woman finding her voice,” Hannah said. Broadly, it focuses on the story of The Washington Post publishing the Pentagon Papers, but the emotional arc of the film is Graham’s: she goes from waking panicked to insist her financial advisor go over the paper’s numbers again, to telling a room full of lawyers and trustee board members to shut up, she is sticking with her decision. Hannah originally wrote her screenplay in order to honor another woman finding her voice, back when many thought the 2016 election would go in a different direction, but then, come November, she and producer Amy Pascal realized “there was an even stronger motive to get it made.”

At that point, production began to move very fast. Steven Spielberg signed on, compelled to tell the story Hannah had written, and he brought Josh Singer, Meryl Streep, and Tom Hanks, as well as other actors and creative team members, onto the scene. It was pretty surreal for Hannah, who had never sold a screenplay before. She remembered sitting at a 2017 Oscars party with some friends, about 10 weeks before shooting on The Post was to begin, and hearing people speculate on what Meryl Streep would do next while not being allowed to reveal anything. And life only got more surreal after that, because Spielberg kept the two screenwriters close to him on set for the duration of the shoot; he constantly asked their opinions and encouraged them to tweak the script, which had not gone through as many drafts as movie scripts usually do.

Spielberg also provided the writers with access to resources that helped them blend history and narrative: they talked to Katherine Graham’s son and historical experts, and got a full, printed copy of the Pentagon Papers through which they could comb for lines that would be useful in the movie. In addition, Spielberg made it possible for the movie to get out so quickly (from photography beginning on May 30 to a release date of December 22) because of his unusual directing style, in which he cuts scenes while shooting is still taking place. Singer and Hannah both considered themselves incredibly lucky for having been able to work with him.

But Spielberg considered himself lucky as well, Singer said, as he “got his first choice on every actor in this film, including Nixon.” Richard Nixon, who appears with his back turned in several Oval Office scenes, actually plays himself, as his dialogue in these scenes is cut from the Watergate tapes. Some scenes, however, are less close to real life; both the interior and exterior of the Supreme Court, for example, were shot at Low Library, although you’d barely recognize it in the film because they had to “edit the top” and “obscure the statue.” (Spielberg apparently is not a fan of Alma.)

Some historical details were cut, some moments were exaggerated, but the whole process of making The Post had one ultimate goal: to tell a powerful story. Both Hannah and Singer emphasized that, although the broader narrative of The Post lionizes freedom of the press, it is successful because of its focus on Katherine Graham. In the film, she is strong, smart, vulnerable, and desperate to make the right decision for her family and company. She captures the viewer’s attention, and her eventual conviction once she reaches a decision reminds them that they can stand their ground and find their voice in the same way.

Hannah was almost ready to give up on screenwriting before she wrote The Post, but her husband encouraged her to just “write that Katherine Graham screenplay” before she gave up – and it ended up getting her nominated for an Oscar. The parallels between Hannah’s story and Graham’s story were not lost on her: “so… this is a story about a woman finding her voice,” she joked.

That parallelism reminded me of one of my favorite scenes in the movie, in which Graham talks to a young woman in the courthouse who has been inspired by The Washington Post‘s move to publish and encourages her to find her own voice. The Post is certainly an inspiring movie for journalists – and, yeah, when you watch it with a crowd of J School students in the literal building where the 2018 Pulitzer prizes will be awarded this coming Monday, it’s hard not to take lines such as, “The only way to assert the right to publish is to publish.” very personally. But this film is both more focused than that, and it is greater than that. It tells the story of the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. It reminds us how hard it is for women to speak up, even today. And it asks its viewer to consider what they would put at stake for protecting free speech and the American democracy, if they were focused to choose.

Photo via Betsy Ladyzhets