An early scene in The Post shows Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) in a boardroom, trying to get a word in about her newspaper's upcoming public offering.
Graham, who took over as publisher of The Washington Post after her husband's death by suicide in 1963, is visibly insecure. She knows the answer — she's been drilling for this meeting for weeks — but she can't quite seem to get the words out. Then, a male colleague steps in, delivering the very statement she had been practicing minutes earlier.
It's a scene that pretty much every woman I have spoken to since watching the film has related to in a very real way, and one that could only have come from having a woman involved in its creation.
That woman is Liz Hannah. In 2016, at just 31 years old, she sold her first-ever screenplay to producer and former Sony head Amy Pascal, who called Hannah out of the blue after reading it one Friday afternoon. Within hours, Pascal bought the rights. Hannah had written the script as a passion project, and merely hoped that it would serve as a stepping stone to get an agent. Instead, a couple of months later, she was told that it was actually being made by Steven Spielberg (!), who would be making it into a film starring Meryl Streep (!!) as Graham, and Tom Hanks (!!!) as veteran Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee .
The Post, about Graham and Bradlee's nail-biting decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971, has been hailed for its well-timed defence of the crucial nature of a free press. But at its core, the film is a story of female empowerment, about a woman finding her voice, and using it to make one of the most significant journalistic decisions of the twentieth century.
"[Graham] had been told time and time again by basically everyone that she wasn’t good enough, that she wasn’t smart enough, that she didn’t have the education to do anything that she wanted to do," Hannah said in a phone interview with Refinery29. "So, she believed them. She believed she wasn’t supposed to run the company, she believed she wasn’t supposed to be the one answering the hard questions. That was sort of what drew me to not only her, but also this moment in her life."
At the time, Hannah was at a crossroads of her own: she wanted to be a writer, but wasn't telling the stories she wanted to tell. She was on the verge of giving up on that dream when her then-boyfriend, now husband, suggested she try her hand at the story she was most passionate about: Graham's.
Hannah had been fascinated with Graham's life since reading a copy of her Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Personal History, several years prior. The choice to focus the story around the Pentagon Papers came out of a desire to showcase the moment in Graham's life when she truly came into her own, at age 54.
"I don’t think I knew at the time that I was finding my voice while writing about her finding hers, but that’s kind of how it happened," Hannah said. "Telling a very personal story under the umbrella of a very national story."
Graham had all but been erased from the legend of those heady days. The first-ever female publisher of an American newspaper, which then earned her the title of first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company (today there are 32, still only 6.4%), her name barely appeared in Alan J. Pakula's All The President's Men. The iconic film followed Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's investigation of the Watergate scandal that took down the Nixon administration for good, barely a year after the publication of the Pentagon Papers. By effectively omitting Graham from the cinematic record, Pakula ensured she would be viewed as a non-essential bystander.
And she wasn't. As shown in The Post, Graham put her personal relationships with high-ranking Democrats, including former President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defence Bob McNamara, at risk when she allowed Bradlee to go forward with the publication of these illegally obtained, highly classified documents about an ongoing war. She was also risking jail time, not to mention the future of the company that had been her father's, then her husband's.
It's a story that needed a woman to tell it right. In addition to Hannah, Streep, and Pascal, longtime Spielberg producer Kristie Macosko Krieger also worked on the film, making the power structure behind the camera unusually female-heavy. That comes through in scenes like the boardroom one mentioned above, which Hannah said is based on events from Graham's life, but also her own experience as a woman in a male-dominated industry.
"I have 100% been the only woman in the room and had no men look at me for an answer that I’m the only one that knows the answer for," she said. "I’ve been in conversations with men where they turned their back on me and continued their conversation. I have 100% been in that, as has every woman involved in this project. But I also think you don’t have to be a woman to feel like an outsider. You don’t have to be a woman to feel like you have been in the room and no one has paid attention to you."
Hannah also credited writer Josh Singer, who came on for rewrites, Hanks, and Spielberg himself, for committing to tell this important woman's story. "I think the fact that Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep wanted to make a film like this, and they wanted to make it because they believed in the message behind it — that is incredibly hopeful," she said. "And in order for things to change, we all have to have each other’s backs. Men and women have to be together, and have the same conversation. And that was the thing that was the most hopeful about this movie — we were all telling this same story about this woman who was kind of forgotten about by history."
And while it would be easy to have Streep stand in for all the strong women involved in this momentous decision, Hannah's script isn't reductive. In other words, the supporting female characters, including Tony Bradlee (Sarah Paulson), Ben Bradlee's wife and a fascinating woman in her own right, and Meg Greenfield (Carrie Coon), the Post's fierce editorial editor and Graham's close friend, were as fleshed out as the male ones.
Hannah, who sold the screenplay to Pascal 10 days before the 2016 Presidential Election, had originally meant this story as a biopic of Graham. The parallels to today's fraught relationship between the executive branch and the media — that have, in part, helped earned the film such favourable coverage — didn't become apparent until later, and production pivoted to give them more weight.
"The world shifted on its axis a little bit, and all of a sudden the press were being kicked out of the West Wing, and that was something I never thought would be a connective tissue to 1971," she said. "I never thought we would again have to be defending the Fourth Estate, and explaining why a free press is important to a democracy."
Ironically, however, Hannah's original main focus, about a woman learning to speak up, may end up being even more relevant. The echo to today's Time's Up and #MeToo movements aren't lost on Hannah, who was at Sunday's landmark Golden Globes, which saw women making their voices heard, both on the red carpet and onstage. (The Post incidentally, nominated for six awards, was shut out of all of them, perhaps indicating that those responsible should have leaned on the female-focused angle more heavily in the film's promotion. In keeping with the wave of activism and change currently sweeping Hollywood, films and TV shows telling women's stories, like Lady Bird, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Big Little Lies, dominated the night.)
"If I’ve learned anything from this last year, but also specifically from the last six months, it's that no one can be quiet anymore, and no one can let their voices be silenced," Hannah said. "It's almost the responsibility of every woman now to speak up and speak out."
She added: "Being in that room, there was so much hope there, and so much determination that we are moving forward, and never going to return to the way that it was. I feel incredibly honoured to be anywhere near that conversation and being able to talk about it."
Going forward, Hannah plans on continuing to use her own voice to amplify other women's. Her next project, an anthology series she's developing at Universal, is based on a book called Bad Girls Throughout History. "We want it to be kind of Black Mirror meets Drunk History," she explained. Each episode will tell the story of a different woman, and will be written and directed by women. Hannah said that she was pleasantly surprised to find not only "a thirst for telling women's stories," but also stories of women who, like Graham, had been glossed over by time and circumstance.
"The book covers 100 different women, and I think I knew about maybe half in there," she said. "It's really exciting to not only show other sides of women’s lives that we know about, but also give a little spotlight to women nobody’s heard of."
"The Post" hits cinemas on January 19.
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