“The Post” takes place in 1971 and chronicles how The Washington Post defied the Nixon administration to publish stories based on the Pentagon Papers, a secret government study about the Vietnam War.
The newspaper — along with the New York Times, which published Pentagon Papers stories and excerpts first — faces off against a Justice Department that believes publishing the information is a national security risk, a battle that ends up in the Supreme Court.
Meryl Streep plays Katharine Graham, the publisher of The Post, whose advisors tell her not to greenlight the stories, as the resulting legal troubles could threaten the paper’s existence. Tom Hanks plays Ben Bradlee, The Post’s executive editor, who believes the information should be printed — for the sake of the public and The Post’s reputation.
Here are answers to your potential questions, along with links to our stories about the film and the people it portrays.
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How did the movie come to be?
Screenwriter Liz Hannah came up with the idea and wrote the first draft. Producer Amy Pascal bought it and Steven Spielberg came on as director. Screenwriter Josh Singer (an Oscar winner for co-writing “Spotlight”) helped rewrite the script.
As Ann Hornaday wrote in her story about the film, “When Pascal acquired “The Post” in 2016, she was convinced that by the time it came out, it would be a Hillary Clinton-era movie; when Spielberg decided to direct it, he thought it would be a Trump-era movie; now, it’s a Weinstein-era movie, with Graham’s personal story of overcoming male arrogance and female invisibility having taken on an even more galvanizing resonance than the intrepid reporting at its core.”
(Read her story, which includes interviews with Streep, Pascal, Hannah and producer Kristie Macosko Krieger: Meryl Streep gave a rousing Golden Globes speech, and ‘The Post’ became a reality. Quickly. Also read our profile of Liz Hannah: How a writer defied ‘one in a million’ odds to get her first movie made by Steven Spielberg)
What do the critics think?
The Post’s chief film critic Ann Hornaday gave it four stars out of four and called it “a fleet, stirring, thoroughly entertaining movie in which Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks play Graham and Bradlee with just the right balance of modesty, gusto and expertly deployed star power.” (Review: In ‘The Post,’ Streep and Hanks lead a stirring homage to the pursuit of truth)
She also named it her No. 3 movie of the year. (Top 10 movies of 2017)
On the day the movie opened, Dec. 22, Rotten Tomatoes had determined that 85 percent of the reviews were positive. On Metacritic, which factors in exactly how positive each review is, the film had scored 83 out of 100.
What are the Pentagon Papers?
The so-called Pentagon Papers — officially called “Report of the OSD (Office of Secretary of Defense) Vietnam Task Force” — are a secret, 7,000-page study of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered the study in 1967 and it was completed in 1969. Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst who worked on the study, leaked it to the New York Times and Washington Post in 1971.
As we wrote in a story in 2011, when the papers were declassified, “their publication in 1971, at a time when the American public had largely turned against the war, was explosive because it revealed a startling gulf between the optimistic public statements of the nation’s top leaders and their increasingly grave private doubts.”
Ellsberg was charged under the Espionage Act, but the charges were eventually dismissed. He’s played by Matthew Rhys in the movie “The Post.”
Who was Katharine Graham?
Katharine Graham, played by Meryl Streep in the film, was the publisher of The Post. Her father Eugene Meyer bought the paper in 1933, then ceded his publisher position to Graham’s husband Philip Graham in 1946. When Philip committed suicide in 1963, Katharine took control for three decades before retiring officially in 1993, succeeded by her son, Donald E. Graham. She was the first female chief executive of a fortune 500 company. (Read her obituary: Katharine Graham dies at 84)
Her memoir, “Personal History,” won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1998. (Read her researcher Evelyn Small’s recollections of the making of the memoir: Katharine Graham at 100: Inside the making of one of the greatest Washington memoirs ever)
Who was Ben Bradlee?
Benjamin C. Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks in the film, was the executive editor of The Post from 1968 to 1991. In the film “All the President’s Men,” about the investigation of the Watergate scandal, he was played by Jason Robards, who won an Oscar for the role. Bradlee’s autobiography is titled “A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures.” (Read his obituary: Ben Bradlee, legendary Washington Post editor, dies at 93)
Why didn’t they make the movie about The New York Times, which broke the Pentagon Papers story?
The New York Times obtained the Pentagon Papers and printed its own stories first, as the film shows. The Post, then considered more of a local paper, strives to gets its hands on the study and write its own stories, in part to boost its reputation. A story on Poynter.org explores this issue, pointing out that The Times won the Pulitzer Prize for public service for its stories.
According to our profile of screenwriter Liz Hannah, her original idea was to make a movie about Katharine Graham. She focused on the Pentagon Papers episode because she felt the risky decision to print the stories marked Graham’s coming of age as a publisher. Graham’s story is also what intrigued the producers and Streep.