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'The Post' spotlights publisher Katharine Graham's history-making decision

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Graham took over as the Washington Post publisher after her husband committed suicide. Years later she decided the Post would publish some of the Pentagon Papers.

Steven Spielberg’s latest film, “The Post,” tells the story of The Washington Post’s 1971 battle to publish some of The Pentagon Papers.

Those were secret, leaked documents that detailed how the Vietnam War was not as successful as the U.S. government led the public to believe. The New York Times was the first to publish portions of the documents, but the Nixon Administration tied up the newspaper in court. While the Times was barred from publishing, leaker Daniel Ellsberg reached out to The Washington Post. The rest is history. 

In "The Post," Tom Hanks plays Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. The paper’s publisher, Katharine Graham, is played by Meryl Streep. 

Graham took over as publisher after her husband committed suicide in 1963. She hadn’t planned to become a newspaper executive, and she often found herself the only woman in a world dominated by men. It is her story that is central to the film.

The Frame’s John Horn recently spoke with the screenwriting duo behind “The Post," Liz Hannah — who wrote the original spec script — and Josh Singer, Oscar-winning writer of "Spotlight."

Interview Highlights:

Hannah on how she decided to focus on Graham:

After reading her book for the first time six years ago, I sort of fell in love with her. There are at least a dozen different films that could have been made about her life. The thing that stuck out about her story for me was that this turning point in her life happened when she was in her mid-50s, where she had expected that she was going to play second fiddle her whole life. She wasn't ever going to run the company, she wasn't ever going to be the alpha in her family. That role was played by her father and then her husband. Then, because of a variety of circumstances, she found herself in that role. 

That moment where you have been told your entire life to doubt yourself, you've been told you don't have a voice, and now you are expected to not only have your voice, but be the defining voice of your company and your paper. That was just such an interesting thing for me to explore. It also happened to coincide with the story of the Post's involvement in the Pentagon Papers. 

Hannah on what clicked as she was writing the script:

Frankly, it all didn't come together as a movie for me until I read Ben Bradlee's memoir and I realized it [was] about the two of them, it's about their relationship, it's about how they pushed each other and made each other better.

Hannah on what Graham was up against:

I think what she was fighting against, in tandem with corporate America, was her own perception of herself, more than anything else. She really didn't believe that she should be running the company. She didn't necessarily believe that a woman should be running it ... She just wanted to keep the company afloat and going until her kids could take over. 

Hannah on how Graham's upbringing shaped her character:

She was a woman of a bygone era, raised in upper class society. Her father was very successful, bought the paper and really adored her. She worked in journalism when she first got out of school, but it was always to get the experience, then to get married and have kids. It was never to potentially run the company herself. She very much came from a time when you went to college in order to meet your husband and then that was what you did. You had kids and it was fine.

Singer on how writing "Spotlight" informed how he approached "The Post":

The beginning was trepidation, when I first got the call to see if I wanted to come pitch in, I was frankly a little nervous about going back to the journalism well, having already written two movies about it. But then I read Liz's script and I was bowled over. It was a great script and, beyond that, she had really distilled this story about the fourth estate and freedom of the press into this very personal story of this great, great woman, Kay Graham, finding her voice. I very quickly realized this is not a reporter story. 

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