New Spielberg blockbuster The Post about Richard Nixon's attempts to gag press in 1971 strikes chord in Trump era

A new film about a US president waging war on the media strikes a resounding chord in the era of Donald Trump – yet it is set almost 50 years ago.

The Post, starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep on-screen together for the first time, could not be more relevant in the current hotbed political climate in America.

But the latest blockbuster production from Hollywood genius Steven Spielberg is not about Trump relentlessly ranting at the press for printing “fake news”.

It is about the administration of Richard Nixon trying to stop The Washington Post publishing top-secret documents that showed the Vietnam War was unwinnable.

Hanks, who plays the Post’s editor Ben Bradlee, says the portrayal of events in 1971 could easily be taking place in the present day.

The Post is the first time Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep have shared the screen together
Hanks plays Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee

The 61-year-old star – making the latest in a long line of collaborations with Spielberg – says: “We may as well be making a movie about what’s happening right now.

“What the current administration is doing is may be more subtle than what happened to The Washington Post back then, because if they were to attempt to silence an organisation today it would be total consternation.

“But what is happening now is more insidious. The administration is putting the idea out there that these are not the truths – it’s muddying the waters by delegitimising truth.

“The difference now is lies and marketing and falsehoods exist side by side with the truth. This promotes the adage, ‘You can’t believe everything you read’.

Streep stars as Post publisher Katharine Graham as she wrestles over the so-called Pentagon Papers
Richard Nixon’s administration tried to stop the Washington Post publishing damning evidence about the Vietnam War
(Image: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

“There’s always been fake news, but the truth stands tall. And standing in the way of that truth being published and disseminated to a wider audience, which is a violation of democracy, that’s the centre of this story.”

The Post, which hits cinemas next week, tells the dilemma faced by Bradlee and the paper’s publisher Katharine Graham over the so-called Pentagon Papers.

These were highly confidential documents which revealed a massive cover-up by the US government over its involvement in Vietnam – and which showed top figures already knew it was fighting a losing battle.

President Nixon – a politician so wily he was nicknamed “Tricky Dicky” – and White House aides sought an injunction to stop the papers being published.

Bradlee and Graham, played in The Post by Streep, defied a federal judge and went ahead with publication – risking going to jail and the ruin of the paper.

The disgraced president resigned in 1974 following the Watergate scandal, exposed by the Post
(Image: The Washington Post)
Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham in real life
(Image: The LIFE Images Collection/Getty)

The move wrecked relations between the White House and The Washington Post. But if the government had succeeded in its legal clampdown, it could have eradicated freedom of speech and the press as we know it.

The film, fuelled by the sequence of events in the US over the past year, was announced just 45 days after Trump’s inauguration.

Spielberg said: “The Post is about a remarkable time and an audacious attempt by a President of the United States to silence our First Amendment rights through the courts.

“But the film is also about the right to publish, the right of the free press.”

The 71-year-old producer said he did not see his movie as a prequel to the events surrounding the Watergate break-in scandal which erupted in 1972.

The storyline about the White House going to war against the press rings true in Trump’s era
(Image: Getty Images North America)

The Washington Post’s key role in uncovering that scandal, which ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974, was immortalised in classic movie All The President’s Men.

Describing his decision to make The Post, Spielberg went on: “I just felt a calling. It’s a piece of reflective history about how this woman, Katharine Graham, found her voice and that led to a tremendous explosion of courage and faith in the free press.”

Spielberg praised 68-year-old Streep for her portrayal of Graham, who took over running the paper in 1963 after the suicide of her troubled husband.

She assumed control at a time when women were largely considered little more than home-makers and transformed it into a major force in American political life.

The defining moment of her career came when she and Bradlee decided to go ahead and print the Pentagon Papers despite the official injunction. The New York Times had already been taken to court by the government and Graham’s lawyers were advising her to wait.

Streep praised her on-screen character Graham because she “took a stand” in an era when “women weren’t expected to do much”
(Image: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX)

Later she described the decision to publish as scary – but said she felt she had no choice.

Oscar winner Streep says she felt a real empathy towards her character, pointing out: “The confident Katharine Graham that people came to know was actually once someone who very unsure of herself.

“She was a product of a time when women weren’t expected to do much outside the realm of good works, good child raising and household keeping.

“She took a stand when it was very difficult for her to do that, when she was not only doubted by her ­adversaries but also by her friends.

“I think it’s a particularly lonely thing to do, to take a stand under those circumstances. Everybody in this story does that.

“Every single person takes a risk, and that more than anything I think is the story of the film – how ordinary people can really move the needle and change the course of history.”

Steven Spielberg on set with the two stars
(Image: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX)

In The Post, which was nominated for six Golden Globes, Spielberg explores the bond between Graham and Bradlee, who became a pillar for her to lean on when it looked like everything could fall apart.

Talking about that relationship, Streep, who has won Best Actress Oscars for The Iron Lady and Sophie’s Choice, says: “I like that their friendship is platonic – you rarely see just the working ­friendship of a man and woman. I think that Katharine adored Ben. Without any hint of romance, I think she really felt like he was a part of her.”

On how President Trump will react to the film, she says: “I actually think he may really like The Post, weirdly, because it is a great movie and it is a patriotic movie.

“What effect would I hope it would have on him? Well, he would stop the shenanigans and give some respect for people who are operating on their principles and not on their appetite.”

Graham died in 2001 aged 84 but her son Don said after viewing the film: “If my mother could see Meryl Steep portraying her, she would feel this was pretty great.”

  • The Post opens in UK cinemas this Friday.

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