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“The Post” Screenwriters On Making A Movie About Exposing Presidential Lies

Liz Hannah and Josh Singer discuss the uncanny experience of telling a story about Nixon and the Pentagon Papers in an era of “fake news.”

“The Post” Screenwriters On Making A Movie About Exposing Presidential Lies
[Photo: Niko Tavernise/ Twentieth Century Fox]

About a month after Sean Spicer insisted, falsely, that Donald Trump had drawn the largest inauguration crowd in history—“period!”—Steven Spielberg signed on to direct The Post, a film about the journalists who exposed a wealth of presidential lies about Vietnam.

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By then, the current U.S. president had established an adversarial relationship with the media. In the months to come, that relationship only deteriorated further, with Trump eventually being named the world’s greatest oppressor of press freedom. Although the team behind The Post had already foreseen some present-day parallels to the era depicted in their film, they were not prepared for exactly how much 2017 would come to resemble 1971.

“It was remarkable how more and more relevant the first amendment theme became as we were in production,” says Josh Singer, a co-writer on The Post. “It’s one of the reasons why Steven [Spielberg] wanted to make the movie now.”

Meryl Streep in “The Post.” [Photo: Niko Tavernise/ Twentieth Century Fox]
The Post initially began as a spec script from Liz Hannah, a then-unknown screenwriter simply hoping to land an agent. She wanted to tell the story of Katharine Graham, the former Washington Post publisher who became the first-ever female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and who ultimately tangled with editor Ben Bradlee over the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers. As Hannah was writing the first draft, the symmetry between Graham and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton seemed to be the most obvious parallel to the present. (She sold the script just 10 days before the election.) Then came Trump’s unexpected victory. While the theme of a woman in charge now felt even more vital, Trump’s war on the media provided an urgent, insistent example of history repeating itself. Suddenly, a screenplay set nearly half a century in the past had a message that would deeply resonate with the present: that the press is meant to serve the governed, not the governors.

Steven Spielberg read a draft of the screenplay in February and decided to make the movie—if he could finish it in time for a 2017 release. Around the same time, Meryl Streep signed on to play Graham, Tom Hanks came on board as Bradlee, and Josh Singer, who won an Oscar for Spotlight, was brought in to help reshape the script with Hannah. Production was set to begin 10 weeks later. The nearly unheard-of speed at which the film came together mirrored the furious pace of the news cycle under the new president.

Although Trump-centric news was constantly erupting while Hannah and Singer reworked the script, the sustained chaos didn’t distract them so much as rile them up.

“We were feeling very hopeful in telling this story and getting it out into the world,” Hannah says. “It gave us something to do, something that felt productive. We felt like we were telling a story we thought should be told right now.”

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One of the ideas she and Singer made sure to highlight in the film was how news reached people in 1971—an almost unrecognizable process in today’s digital insta-culture. A substantial portion of the film lingers on every level of decision-making that went into publishing a newspaper, and viewers become intimately familiar with the linotype machines that put the words onto paper. It’s an entirely different world than the 21st-century media landscape, in which anybody can press a button and have “the news” go out to the public.

“What became clear while we were making this movie is the current threat against good institutional journalism,” Singer says. “There was that woman who posed as a Roy Moore accuser to entrap the Washington Post. But good institutional journalism got to the bottom of that story in the way that good institutional journalism usually does. And it just shows how if you’re gonna put out a story like that, you better be sure you’re getting the right story.”

Streep in “The Post.” [Photo: Niko Tavernise/ Twentieth Century Fox]
Of course, one of the major differences between media then and now is that far fewer people can agree on what constitutes “the right story.” The public readership has fragmented mostly into hyperpartisan tribes, each explaining their own version of events. The idea of a single, agreed-upon, objective reality is fast becoming a thing of the past.

“We’re living in a world where the truth is no longer the truth,” Hannah says. “We’re arguing about not just the validity of things, but whether things actually exist. That’s just a whole other level of the struggle of journalism that didn’t exist in 1971.”

The citizens of 1971 may not have had a Commander in Chief constantly screaming “fake news!” at all negative news coverage, but they did have a vindictive leader who tried to mislead the public. One of the major changes to Hannah’s original script after Singer and Spielberg came on board was the addition of Nixon as an occasional presence in the film. Until then, the film lacked a tangible antagonist, so Spielberg raised the idea of including the infamous Nixon Tapes—a collection of audio from the president’s voice-activated taping system throughout the White House. These recordings recur throughout The Post—accompanied by grainy footage shot from outside the building—to personalize a president at war with the press. It was a useful way to rely on history to help tell the story, while also echoing the present.

Despite certain similarities between the political climate of The Post and that of present-day America, the writers were careful not to overemphasize that point.

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“We really were very conscious of not trying to rewrite anything to reflect what was happening as we were writing,” Hannah says. “There were things that happened during filming that reflected the era of the film but we weren’t trying to respond to anything.”

With source material already so uncannily similar to current events, adding anything would have been redundant. The message and timeliness of this film speak for themselves. No winks at the audience required.

“There’s a lot of foreshadowing what’s to come, but it’s all in the story within the history,” Singer says. “Nothing happens in the movie just so we could make a comment on what’s happening today. It’s all right there.”

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