The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At Washington screening for ‘The Post,’ Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg find parallels to Nixon era

The Washington Post hosted a discussion with director Steven Spielberg and cast members of the new movie, “The Post." (Video: TWP)

You know it’s not your typical celebrity-laden movie screening when the first guy down the red carpet is an octogenarian in a loosefitting navy suit that’s hardly Hollywood-approved.

“Mr. Ellsberg!” someone calls.

Ah-ha, it’s Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who leaked the Pentagon Papers — certainly not your usual glittery A-lister, but at a Thursday-night showing of “The Post,” the upcoming Steven Spielberg-directed movie about The Washington Post’s  1971 publication of the secret government documents, he was an honorary member of the elite club.

Ellsberg stopped to talk about why the big-screen homage to an embattled Fourth Estate (ahem, “fake news” anyone?) taking on a White House bound to suppress it feels necessary at the moment. “It couldn’t be more timely,” he said. His wife, Patricia, gave her stamp of approval, too, only her rationale was sweetly personal — actor Matthew Rhys, who plays Ellsberg, visited their home to research his role, she said. “He has the same blue eyes,” she said. “He’s very handsome — he reminds me of my husband back then!”

The screening, held at the Newseum, was the ultimate mash-up of Fictional Washington and Real Washington: boldface actors who play Posties and government types on the big screen jostled alongside real-life Washington journalists and officials. Jeffrey P. Bezos, the Amazon founder and chief executive who owns the Post, and Post publisher Fred Ryan passed by with smiles and nods, as did other locals, including CBS’s Major Garrett, Chris Wallace of Fox News, and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).

Photos of red carpet arrivals at the premiere of ?The Post? movie in Washington

WASHINGTON, DC -DEC 14: Actress Meryl Streep who portrays Kay Graham in the movie, "The Post" poses for photographers at the premier of the film. -The world premier of the movie, "The Post" took place at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. tonight. All of the major stars of the movie and director Steven Spielberg attended as well as many local politicians and business people such as Warren Buffett. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

But for them it was a night off, spent at the movies — it was the imported stars who were really working the carpet, offering their thoughts about the flick, the parallels between the Nixon-era drama and that of the Trump administration, and how the movie tries to get the historical details just right. Bob Odenkirk, the “Better Call Saul” actor who plays Ben Bagdikian, the reporter who argued that the paper should publish the Pentagon Papers, says he relied on Bagdikian’s autobiography and some video footage to capture his vocal patterns. But the more important portrayal, he said, was of how journalists actually work. “This is about a bunch of journalists who were very serious about the effort,” he said. “You get to see in this movie people doing this job.”

Tom Hanks, who plays legendary executive editor Ben Bradlee, said he was inspired by Jason Robards, the actor who famously fixed Bradlee in the pop-culture universe by playing him in that other Post-centric movie, the 1976 classic “All The President’s Men.” But Hanks said he drew his characterization primarily directly from Bradlee, whom he had gotten to know before the newsman died in 2014.

“A nod to the great Jason Robards, and no one will ever give a better performance — but I had Bradlee himself,” he said.

Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep visit Washington Post offices to research Pentagon Papers movie

Others had slightly less to go on. David Cross, who plays Post managing editor Howard Simons, said he didn’t have the advantage of such source material, so he had to rely mostly on old photos. “Every picture of him, he’s got his arms crossed, so you’ll see me doing that,” he said. “And at least we got the comb-over right. That’s very important.”

But forget reaching into the past. “The Post” is being lauded for its very-current themes, including women in leadership (Meryl Streep stars as Post publisher Kay Graham), exposing government secrets, and the importance of the embattled-but-independent free press.

Spielberg says that shouldn’t be interpreted as explicitly partisan, even though President Trump is waging a daily Twitter war against the mainstream media. “It’s a patriotic film,” Spielberg says. “I don’t think patriotism is partisan.”

Still, the movie does portray newspapers as heroes that dare speak truth to power, offering the media some much-needed positive PR in an age where journalists are so often regarded with hostility. And so it seems apropos that of all the stars walking the carpet, the biggest one might have been there in spirit only. “That First Amendment is first for a number of reasons,” Hanks said, saying that both Nixon and Trump launched attacks on the freedom of the press.

And actor Bradley Whitford, who plays a Post executive (and who is eerily coming to resemble his onetime co-star Martin Sheen in “The West Wing,” with his silvery mane and pearly smile), offered a similar rallying cry: “It’s the First Amendment — it’s not number seven,” he said. “It’s shown in the movie that the press works for the governed, not the government.”