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The Post: Risking everything for the truth

The Post: Risking  everything for the truth


CINDY PEARLMAN
NYT Syndicate
When it comes to old media stories, they don't come much more old-school than Steven Spielberg's The Post, which is about The Washington Post and the 1971 controversy over the 'Pentagon Papers'. In the age of social media,"fake news" and Donald Trump, why rehash a 46-year-old story about a war that most Americans are too young to remember?
Meryl Streep thinks it's a story that's all too relevant in 2017.
"It really is the synchronicity of the sphere," said the 68-year-old Streep, who stars in the film."It really does speak to our particular moment of time, when the press is under siege and we're calling sexism on the carpet."
Co-star Tom Hanks thinks the film is all about truth and lies, a subject that never goes out of style.
"The truth can go around the world almost as fast as a lie," the 61-year-old actor said,"but a lie will disappear in life. A truth will appear as constant as the speed of light."
Spielberg's The Post stars Streep as Post publisher Katharine Graham and Hanks as her hard-driving executive editor, Ben Bradlee ” familiar to moviegoers from Jason Robards' Oscar-winning portrayal in All the President's Men (1976). It concerns Graham's historic decision to publish thousands of pages of top-secret documents leaked from the Pentagon, documents which revealed that much of what the public had been told about the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War was deliberately untrue.
Spielberg was hard at work on Ready Player One, a science-fiction extravaganza due next spring, when producer Amy Pascal suggested that he read a script written by a 31-year-old novice screenwriter named Liz Hannah.
"By Page 30, I began to say Ben Bradlee will be played by Tom Hanks and Katharine will be Meryl Streep," Spielberg recalled."I always wanted to work with Meryl, and this will be my fifth film with Tom."
As it happened, Pascal also had sent the script to Streep, who was intrigued.
"It was 1971," she explained."It was a world of men. She was the owner/publisher of The Washington Post and one of the few women in that position. When a decision came whether to continue the publication of the Pentagon Papers, which had begun with The New York Times, it came down to her. She felt alone in that position and was put on the spot.
"Katharine Graham stepped into a moment of history and made history."
Streep couldn't meet with Graham, who had died in 2001, but learned a great deal from Graham's memoirs, Personal History (Knopf, 1997).
"I really didn't know very much about her," the actress admitted."Nora Ephron told me Graham's autobiography was one of the great ones of all time and I should read it."
Streep also spent time with Graham's son and daughter in preparing for the role.
"How you are at home is so important," she said."You reveal yourself more to your kids. At work Katharine Graham had so many people thinking she didn't deserve to be where she was, when we know now she was a brilliant businesswoman. She earned it on her own, in an era when women weren't supposed to do more than good works, good child raising and household keeping."
As it happened, Hanks had already encountered Bradlee, who died in 2014.
"I had dinner and lunch with Ben a couple of times in the '90s," the actor recalled."I met him and his wife, Sally, through Nora Ephron. Later in his life he had dementia, but when I met him he was still very much the Ben Bradlee that we know. The man I met was curious and had command of the room. He was very interested in what was going on and what you had to say.
"A conversation with him flew by and jumped from topic to topic," Hanks added,"but he didn't pontificate or tell war stories. If you asked Ben, 'Who was Deep Throat?,' he would say, 'Oh ... maybe it was ... who knows?' Then he'd go into something else."
Hanks also studied Bradlee's book, A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures (Simon & Schuster, 1995), and video footage of him, besides talking with those closest to Bradlee.
"This man owned the room, no matter what room it was," Hanks said."He was not the guy in charge, but he was the most interesting person at the table, in the office, in the board room. He proved himself every single day with every single story. He was all about getting the story right ” or you had to eat it, and that didn't taste good!"
It was a challenging role to tackle, especially in the shadow of Robards' Oscar-winning performance.
"When I signed on to play Bradlee," Hanks recalled with a laugh,"I heard, 'Well, you don't look like Jason Robards.'"
A key scene for Streep was one in which Graham is hosting a dinner party and the conversation turns to politics ” at which point most of the women excuse themselves and go into another room.
"That was customary in certain circles of powerful people," Streep said."There is a scene just like that in the film I made about Margaret Thatcher. Same thing happened. People would have a dinner party and, when the important topics came up, the women would excuse themselves and go talk about whatever."
The scene is based on an actual event in Graham's life.
"She went to dinner at a famous columnist's house, who was very well connected with powerful people," Streep said."The moment came up when the women left or were supposed to leave. She said, 'You know, I think I'm going to go home now, because I don't want to do that.' She went home, and it ended the practice in Washington. Word travelled around the city that women got to stay.
"It was a tiny revolt."
To capture the camaraderie of a newsroom, Hanks hosted a bonding lunch at his home for the actors playing the Post's reporters and editors. It also gave him a chance to share some insights.
"Everyone always asks me, 'What's it like to work with Steven Spielberg?' I said, 'Come over and we'll have some pie and I'll explain the way the guy works,'" Hanks said.
OK, what's it like?
"The discussion over pie was this," Hanks said."Everyone has this sense that, when Steven arrives on set, no one is allowed to look at him. Absolutely not true. I did tell them that there is no rehearsal. Our job is to show up on time, know our lines and be flexible to go in any direction.
"Steven loves actors," he continued."He wants you to come up with ideas. He will also throw stuff at you that you can't ever imagine. On other days, all your work will be done for you ” all you have to do is inhabit those moments."
One of those moments came during a newsroom scene.
"Six of us are sitting around talking," Hanks recalled."We had this fabulous banter, 'Front Page' type of jargon. We were in heaven and kept waiting for Steven to come in with the camera. He never really did. He was busy shooting a guy with a shoebox full of papers. That was key to him: It wasn't about us, it was about a shoebox full of papers.
"By the way, the fellow who played the guy with the shoebox didn't know it would be about him that day," the actor added."Steven gave him most of his lines on the set."
The pivotal question in the film is whether Graham will decide to publish the secret history of the Vietnam War known as the 'Pentagon Papers', knowing full well that the notoriously vindictive Nixon administration will fight back with everything it has. For the editors, it might mean prison, and for Graham the loss of her newspaper.
"In that moment they could have lost everything," Streep said."The owner of the paper had to decide if she was willing to jeopardise her family's legacy, the paper and thousands of jobs if they were shut down."
Hanks and Spielberg are old friends and frequent collaborators, and both are nothing if not prolific. Somehow, though, Streep had never worked with either man.
"Tom has the reputation for being the nicest guy in Hollywood," she said."That's all true, but he's also crackerjack smart. He really drives the scenes he's in. That crackling wit is always there.
"I had never worked with Steven," Streep continued."Tom had ” about 150 times, obviously. I always admired Steven's films, but I was never asked to dance.
"I was completely unprepared for his spontaneity and the improv nature of his work," she said."Steven is so free on the set. Originally Steven said, 'I'm going to shoot a certain scene on your face.' I said, 'Oh God, 20 years ago, maybe.' But the truth was, I never knew where the camera would be. He kept moving it, which was thrilling.
"I said to my husband, 'I can't wait to go to work in the morning,'" Streep concluded."He said, 'You don't always say that.'"

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