Steven Spielberg’s new film The Post, which opens in wide release January 12, is an important coming-of-age story for women in any industry fighting for the right to speak.
It’s also one of the most personal films the legendary filmmaker has ever made. Fast-tracked to be finished by year’s end, it all started with a Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir and an idea for a screenplay from a young female screenwriter named Liz Hannah.
“I was really depressed about the way things were happening in the world and the country,” Spielberg told Vanity Fair’s Rebecca Keegan at the Director’s Guild in November. “Liz Hannah, 31-years-old, writes a spec script and gets it to Amy Pascal, who sends it to me, and suddenly my entire outlook on the future brightened overnight. It was there on the paper. I just felt that there was an urgency to reflect 1971 and 2017, because it was very terrifyingly similar.”
Throughout his career, Spielberg has been drawn to those moments on which historical transformations turn in films, ranging from Schindler’s List to Munich to Bridge of Spies. The Post is based on the true events that unfolded when the Washington Post and the New York Times formed a pragmatic alliance in the wake of the Times’s incendiary exposure of the top secret study that would become known as the Pentagon Papers.
The film is a celebration not only of the importance of the fourth estate, but of two iconic women in publishing: Katharine Graham, the brilliant late former publisher of the Washington Post, as well as the equally brilliant Nora Ephron, the late journalist, essayist, filmmaker, and author who paved the way for many of us — including Spielberg, Tom Hanks (who plays editor Ben Bradlee, introduced in real life to Hanks by Ephron), Meryl Streep, who plays Graham in the film, and indirectly to Hannah and other emerging female screenwriters.
Along with Wonder Woman and Lady Bird, it’s possibly one of the most important feminist films of 2017, honoring Ephron’s creed to “make a little trouble out there on behalf of women.” Though she died in 2012, her legacy lives on in the pursuit of truth by journalists in our own post-Weinstein and Trump era, as well as in the moments of triumph memorialized in Hannah’s script. It is fitting, then, that Spielberg dedicated the film to her; she was more than his former neighbor in East Hampton, she was one of his most beloved friends and mentors.
Like Graham, Ephron lived not one or two lives, but many, as a woman determined to reinvent herself whenever she saw fit (or, as Mike Nichols put it, “like a cat, changing direction in mid-air”). The two women had much in common, particularly in proving to the world that neither grief, nor heartbreak, nor gender politics could deter them from becoming legends in media. Both suffered public affairs in their marriages, and both rose above them to become even better versions of themselves, falling in love with their jobs in the process.
The script Hannah and collaborator Josh Singer (who co-wrote Spotlight) wrote for The Post focused on a key moment in Graham’s 1997 memoir, Personal History, following the suicide of her husband and her uneasy foray into taking over the family publishing business. While balancing the decision to take the company public in an effort to stay profitable (in doing so, she became the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company in 1972), Graham is also faced with the decision of whether to publish the Pentagon Papers, which would reveal that four presidential administrations had been covering up the truth about the deadly war in Vietnam that took the lives of 58,220 service members and directly caused the loss of more than a million lives. The decision to support Bradlee and his editorial team in publishing the papers also set the stage for Watergate, and for the Washington Post’s continued commitment to defending democracy and holding those in power accountable.
“There was something very relatable to a woman finding her voice, to standing with men and being overlooked, over-talked…and making that decision to stand on her own two feet,” Hannah has said.
The courage of conviction shown by Graham in the face of intimidation from not only her all-male board, but from the nation’s highest office — including possible prison time — as she decided to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971, is a timely and important reminder of the power of refusing to be silenced in the face of fear. (Streep, of course, has not been immune to this discussion herself in light of her longtime association with disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.)
Initially, Ephron came to know Graham tangentially as a “mail girl” at Newsweek when it was still owned by The Washington Post Company in the 1960’s. She was told at the time she was hired that women did not become writers there, an issue that became a landmark class-action lawsuit in 1970, dramatized in last year’s Amazon original series Good Girls Revolt. (In a not-so-ironic turn of events, the show was canceled, reportedly, with “no women at the table” despite strong reviews and ratings. Though talks picked up to renew it after Roy Price’s resignation this fall, it has since been announced that it will not return for a second season.) She later married famed Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein; they later split, and Ephron about the affair in the bestselling novel and screenplay, Heartburn.
While she’s best known for her beloved and critically-acclaimed films, such as When Harry Met Sally… and Silkwood, it was during Ephron’s first career as a journalist and essayist at Esquire in the early 1970’s that she established her voice as a forward-thinking writer on everything from her candid disdain for the size of her breasts (in 1972 Esquire article “A Few Words About Breasts”), to the complicated relationships between women and men, work, love, friendship, and family.
Ephron covered “women’s issues” before “women’s issues” had become part of a potent movement, or a part of mainstream publishing. “Along came Nora,” Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote in his 2016 book, She Made Me Laugh: My Friend Nora Ephron. “She was not only a woman, but she was writing for women. Best of all, she was no doctrinaire feminist.”
Graham, too, had to come to terms with her definition of feminism in her own way, becoming one of the most powerful women in America in the process, and a pioneer on behalf of the women to follow, something Ephron noted in her New York Times Book Review article on Graham’s memoir in 1997: “The story of her journey from daughter to wife to widow to woman parallels to a surprising degree the history of women in this century.”
Ultimately, though, it’s Graham, Ephron, and Spielberg’s commitment to their respective crafts that unites them, and through The Post, has the power to unite us all. They’ve also each helped set the gold standard on defending the right to publish, create, write, and speak — even when commercial interests or political pressure might persuade others not to do so.
When I asked Cohen if Ephron was afraid of anything, he didn’t hesitate before he said no. “I don’t recall anything that scared her,” he continued. “She was always up for anything. The courage that she had ultimately was the courage of a writer — to take on anything and say anything, as long as she was honest. In fact, I couldn’t get over it — she was afraid of nothing.”
For Ephron, writing was more than a way to make a living. It was a way of life. It became her saving grace after her very public and painful split from Bernstein, in between successful films in Hollywood, and, most poignantly, as she came to terms with the knowledge that she had a fatal disease in 2006. To stop writing would have been “like a death that preceded death,” Cohen wrote.
So, where does this prequel to All the President’s Men leave us — the women writing, publishing, and pushing boundaries in 2018? With much more work to do. At least we have new inspiration from our journalistic foremothers, and strength from our filmmaking sisters of the future.