Post Mortem: Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks revisit The Washington Post's historic Pentagon Papers coup

Movies Features

When Steven Spielberg comes across a script he thinks is so timely it needs his immediate attention, he does not hesitate: He drops whatever he is doing to start work right away on the new project.

That is what happened with 20th Century Fox’s The Post, which recounts The Washington Post's handling of the Pentagon Papers drama of 1971, centering on such issues as press freedom and gender equality.

The spec script from Liz Hannah was passed to him by producer Amy Pascal while he was working on the Warner Bros. thriller Ready Player One.

"When I read the first draft, I couldn't believe the timing," he says during a talk at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills. "I knew the issues and answers in this story needed to be told at once and not wait two or three years. I need a motivational reason to make any movie and this was a story I felt we had to tell today."

The Post focuses on the unlikely partnership between the newspaper's Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), the first female publisher of a major American newspaper, and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) as they wrestle to publish the Pentagon Papers, a suppressed analysis of the government’s mishandling of the Vietnam War spanning decades.

Most of the action takes place over just a few days, with the drama stemming from the Nixon administration's efforts to stop the Post and The New York Times from printing top-secret information about the war. The script's topicality in this era of "fake news" and journalists being banned from White House briefings resonated with Spielberg, who rushed it into production. 

He called on a who’s-who of film, television and theatre actors to fill out his cast. Joining Hanks and Streep are Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, David Cross, Bruce Greenwood, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Jesse Plemons, Matthew Rhys, Michael Stuhlbarg and Bradley Whitford, among others

"I certainly hope that our movie makes people aware of the kind of effort that goes into searching for and seeking and printing the truth," Spielberg declares. "Print is becoming an antiquity and everything today is digital, but the truth is never going to be an antiquity and is never going to go out of style."

Surprisingly, Hanks and Streep had never previously worked together, although The Post is Spielberg's fifth collaboration with Hanks and he has known Streep socially for many years. "I have always wanted to work with her, but she was the wrong type for War Horse," he jokes. "And I couldn't find a role for her in Lincoln. But I knew Katharine Graham and when this project came to me I felt there was nobody on the face of the Earth that could play her better than Meryl Streep."

When I spoke with Streep, she told me, "I'd never worked with Steven Spielberg before and he's such an amazing filmmaker. I've never, ever worked with anyone who has a more intuitive feel for how to construct a visual narrative. It was so exciting to go to work.

"He doesn't rehearse, so that was completely terrifying and destabilizing for me. But Tom knew that, so Tom was always ready and it made me step up my game, too. It was a joyous experience."

"So finally Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks had a chance to make a film together," says Spielberg with satisfaction. "And I am just so pleased that I got to be the director of the debut of those two great actors onscreen together."

Katharine Graham became the Post publisher by accident when her husband, who had been left the newspaper by her father, died suddenly and it fell to her to take it over.

She did so, showing strength and determination, factors Spielberg has always admired in women. "I have had a lot of female co-workers, as you know," he notes. "I have had companies run by women, starting with Kathleen Kennedy, who ran Amblin for me for many, many years, and then transitioning with Laurie MacDonald with Walter Parkes, who ran DreamWorks for about 12 years, and then Stacey Snider, who ran DreamWorks for the next seven years. And I am probably looking for a woman to run this new iteration of Amblin Partners right now, because I am not going to be doing this job for the rest of my life.

"I had a very strong mother who was more of a friend to me than a primary caregiver and I learned so much from her about managing relationships, especially managing difficult personalities. I just find that women are better attuned to creating a kind of ambiance and I think I am better working in that kind of culture than I am just working surrounded by guys all day long, like I was on Saving Private Ryan for three months."

Steven Spielberg is smartly dressed in a suit, collar and tie and he is thoughtful and unassuming, answering questions willingly.Critics have often taken issue with the sentimentality and emotional manipulation they feel permeates some of his movies, but he is one of the Western world’s most famous and successful filmmakers, with enduring hits like Jaws, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan and Lincoln to his credit.

The man who has accumulated three Oscars, three Golden Globes, four Emmys and another 180 awards knew from the time he saw his first movie, Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952, exactly what he wanted to do with his life.

“I was making movies in the house and blowing things up in the kitchen and putting fake blood stains on the walls and ceiling and blowing up the backyard with cherry bombs and firecrackers,” he recalls. “Fortunately, I had very liberal parents who somehow let me get away with it.”

He made his first home movie when he was 12 and created his first feature film at 16, a two-hour science-fiction adventure, Firelight. He applied for admission to USC Film School but was rejected three separate times. Instead, he went to Long Beach State, but ended up dropping out before he got his degree.

"Had I gone to USC, I might have been holding lights for George Lucas instead of directing," he laughs. "So maybe it was good that I went someplace without any competition."

Then, at the age of 23, on the basis of a 24-minute short called Amblin which was shown at the Atlanta Film Festival, he was signed by Universal, where he directed episodes of “Night Gallery” and “Columbo” before making the TV movie Duel, followed by his first feature, The Sugarland Express, and his breakthrough, Jaws.

At the same time, his fellow would-be filmmakers, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Brian De Palma, were also beginning to make waves in the film industry. They have all remained friends for more than 50 years.

"We just wanted to make movies and tell stories, but we didn’t think anybody would let us do it," Spielberg recalls with a smile. "Francis was the first success when he broke through with You’re a Big Boy Now and then The Godfather. And then he became our godfather, giving us the encouragement to keep making those 16mm films and to not give up when people tell you no, but just find another door that will be unlocked for you.

"Francis was a real mentor for all of us, but we never expected to succeed the way that we did. If we could have simply continued to tell stories on film, we would have been satisfied for the rest of our lives. We weren’t expecting any of this and it's the last thing that we ever thought would have happened to us. But the most amazing thing is that we have stayed friends and collaborators and mentors for each other, ever since Marty and I met in 1967 and George and I met in 1968 and Brian and I met in 1968. It all happened a long time ago, but we stayed together."

Since those early days he has seen many changes in the world of filmmaking and marketing and he is intrigued by the opening up of the Asian market for movies. "The Asian market has very, very hungry people who are looking for entertainment of all kinds and not just tentpole, Marvel-type movies, but movies of substance and movies about something real. Those markets have opened up beyond anything I could have imagined 20 years ago. China, Asia and Korea have an incredible hunger and thirst for good entertainment. So the market just gives us more people to show our movies to."

He is also monitoring the growth of virtual reality and sees it as something for the future. "I don’t know when it’s really going to take hold and explode," he says. "But the most shocking thing about virtual reality is when you finish the experience and you take off the goggles and you are back where you started, you would rather be in the goggles again. That is the most amazing thing about it—the shock is coming back to real life as opposed to getting lost in the digital world."

Spielberg is currently busy with promotional duties for The Post, but when they are finished he has a daunting list of projects awaiting him. He has almost finished Ready Player One, is preparing The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, and will produce and direct the next Indiana Jones film. Then there's a potential remake of West Side Story for which he has secured the rights after trying to get them 15 years ago.

For his future projects he will once again be using the same collaborators he is intensely loyal to: editor Michael Kahn, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and composer John Williams.

"I have been blessed with some amazing collaborations throughout my career and I stick with the same people my whole life," Spielberg notes. "Michael Kahn has cut every single movie I have directed since Close Encounters and John Williams has composed just about every score, including The Post. And Janusz Kaminski and I have now worked together since 1993 and Schindler’s List.

"I found him because I was watching television one night—you can profit from watching TV if you are in my business—and there was a TV movie on that Diane Keaton had directed called Wildflower that Janusz photographed. And that was the beginning of our relationship. I hired him to do Schindler’s List based on this television movie he shot with Diane Keaton.

"I have worked with some great cinematographers in the past, Vilmos Zsigmond and Allen Daviau and Mikael Salomon, but I have never, ever had the experience of working with someone who has also become one of my best friends. Janusz just finds a different way of telling a story with light and I leave that to him. He decides the color temperature the film should be, and I remember when we made Lincoln he found this amazing color temperature, so even though it was in color, it looked like it was in black-and-white, because there were no light bulbs in 1865, and so the film was relatively dark. That was a real risk that Janusz and I took, but that was Janusz’s idea."

In preparing for his movies, Spielberg differentiates between those that need his imagination and those that require detailed research. "A film which is just entertainment depends on my imagination to supply it with all of its needs, and a film that is historical fiction or completely true is a film that requires less imagination and a lot of research and fact-checking and confirmation of those facts," he explains. "So when I did Lincoln and now with The Post, I probably, with Josh Singer and Liz Hannah the writers, did more research to confirm that everything that we were putting in the story actually happened. So my imagination would be a hindrance to something like The Post. I mean, I still have an imagination with a historical drama based on the pacing and the timing and where the camera goes and how I can more dramatically tell the story. But the facts are the facts, and in a sense I had to become a journalist to be able to tell the story in the right way."

In the past, Spielberg would take years off at a time to be with his wife of 26 years, actress Kate Capshaw, and their seven children—one by his previous wife Amy Irving and two from Capshaw’s previous marriage—whose ages range from 21 to 40."My family’s always come first and in the past when I didn’t make a movie for three years, I was raising my kids," he says. But now that they have all left home he has more time for moviemaking. "As long as I have good scripts, I’ll keep working," he asserts. "When I don’t have them, I won’t work. It’s always been that way.”

During his 55-year career, Spielberg has produced more than 160 movies and TV series and directed 55 films, yet despite his success and the stack of awards he has accumulated, he has retained a wide-eyed, almost childlike enthusiasm for his work.

“My body isn’t telling me to slow down yet, and whenever I find something new to do I get excited and become like a kid again,” he says. “For me, the fountain of youth is an idea or a story I have either come up with myself or read somewhere and I say, ‘I’ve got to tell that story.’ That’s what keeps me going and fuels my passion. And I’m constantly grateful that it does.”