Hanks, Spielberg and ‘The Post’

"The Post" newsroom
Photo courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures

A Letter of Thanks From the Editor

By JOHN HARLOW | Editor-in-Chief

The opening scenes of Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming Oscar nominee “The Post” reveals, for many young eyes, alien technology: a typewriter, in a battered case.

This might be at the height of the Vietnam conflict, but for the next two hours, the clacking of typewriters will challenge the terrible sound of gunfire.

It’s also a cute signal that it won’t be long before vintage typewriter aficionado and Spielberg neighbor/collaborator Tom Hanks will take his bow on stage as late Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee. (He apparently tried out every typewriter on set and walked away with a Royal.)

Now I once met Bradlee, at some posh dinner where he was—like all old newspapermen—spinning his tales in a familiar cigarette-fueled rasp, always skeptical, never cynical.

And you, Mr. Hanks, are some Ben Bradlee.

You got him right, down to the piratical grin, the squinty impatience, and the sense of mission and fun that has kept us all in the newspaper business when we could be making more money creating apps.

(Although, with Hanx Writer, you also do that.)

At one point Tom/Ben slams a desk in glee, exploding into something like, “Isn’t this fun?”

And at many newspapers battling to survive (or at least hemorrhaging both cash and confidence), it’s too easy to forget that, yes, it can be fun—both for readers and writers, if rarely for editors.

This film, even more than the double-Oscar winning “Spotlight” (starring part-time Palisadian Michael Keaton), shows that, then as now, newspapers can be both expensive to run and tricky to steer.

And they can, occasionally, make a difference—something that cannot be said for social media screaming matches, trolls and even the beloved LOL cats.

But you, Tom and Steve (May I call you Steve? I understand you are one of our readers, when you are in town.) and the always-luminous Meryl Streep, as Bradlee’s boss Kay Graham, have created what might be one of the most important works of political art of 2017. Almost by accident.

Apart from the early scene-setting scenes, “The Post” covers a mere week in the life of Washington’s third-tier newspaper that suddenly finds itself on front pages across the globe.

It is 1971, Streep’s orange ensembles warn us, and the New York Times has been sifting for months through a leaked cache of Defense Department papers suggesting that every president from Truman to Johnson had knowingly lied to the public about the prospects of winning the Vietnam War.

It was a war, one government calculation said, fought for 70 percent to save government face against a 30 percent chance of victory.

Which meant, roughly, 40,000 of the 58,000 brave and extraordinary Americans who perished in Vietnam were sacrificed to save not country or cause but a career.

These documents become known as the “Pentagon Papers.”

Can Ben Bradlee’s Washington Post catch up?

And if they get something, through old-fashioned contacts rather than data-mining, will a still-green Graham allow Bradlee to publish revelations that not only hurt her dinner table pals—such as Bob McNamara, the architect of Johnson’s war strategy—but also her paper?

It’s a risky business because, as we learn through authentic recordings of Richard Nixon, the White House loathes the very idea of a “difficult” press and sets out to belittle, undermine and marginalize those who work with and in it.

The publication of the Pentagon Papers literally caused riots in the streets. Newspapers did that and accelerated the end of the war. Politicians were actually, what is the word, oh yes, ashamed.

In 2017, even the most appalling deeds are mere fodder for late-night satire.

“The Post” was written as a spec script by first-timer Liz Hannah, during the summer 2016, when Hillary Clinton was a dead cert for the presidency. We know that because the Post and the Times kept printing it.

It gave the meatiest role to Streep as a woman emerging to power.

But electoral fate has ensured that the movie’s moral heartbeat has partially flipped back to Hanks.

And what a newspaperman has to be and do.

(The media likes Hanks, and he likes some of us: This month he is expected to make his annual donation of a coffee maker to the bruised ranks of the White House press corps. Lordy, they need coffee.)

But the Hanks character also raises questions about the cost of news gathering, the prospect of publishing a story that will be treated as treason by a vengeful White House, the moral balance of transparency against risking lives in the field (ask that to Putin’s eager stooges at WikiLeaks) … All these were critical in 1971, and remain as important today.

Before and since the Pentagon Papers and its sequel, Watergate, the national press has dropped the ball—on the Iraq War and on ISIS, it proved shamefully naïve. On Clinton, too. And, abroad, nearly every story obtained during the British tabloid telephone-hacking era produced trivial, celebrity gossip.

But, despite such embarrassments, the trade remains oh, so necessary.

Yet “The Post” is far from nostalgic hagiography.

Spielberg suggests a younger Bradlee was suckered into journalistic compliance by his friendship with Jack Kennedy. He asks whether whistleblowers are unstable, unpatriotic egoists who do not care about the chaos they spread.

He asks whether anyone worries about the cynicism of men with power.

Today, at 70, the director, who turned this project around in weeks under the code word “Nor-Easter” with the energy of a cub reporter, could be churning out endless dinosaur pictures.

He could be putting his sneakers up in his Amalfi vineyard, wondering if he is finally going to get that long-awaited pony for his birthday on Dec. 18.

But, again and again, from the controversially nuanced “Munich” to the moving and complex “Lincoln,” Spielberg is using his super powers of prestige and bankability to make serious movies that ask big questions.

And for the heirs of Bradlee and Graham, smaller people like me, true believers still, that is good news indeed.

“The Post” opens on limited release on Dec. 22 and on general release on Jan. 12