The newsroom crackles with verisimilitude, its rotary-dial phones, staccato typewriters and a veil of cigarette smoke evoking a bygone grittiness. At its heart are a wisecracking editor and matriarchal publisher.
“The Post,” starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep (and opening Friday in the Twin Cities), may conjure up newspaper dramas such as “Deadline – U.S.A.,” the 1952 film noir about crusading journalists that starred Humphrey Bogart and Ethel Barrymore. But those movies were pure fiction. “The Post,” set at the Washington Post as it covered the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration, is billed as a docudrama.
Just how accurate is this “All the President’s Men” prequel? Here’s a primer separating fact and fiction.
The background: The film revolves around the Pentagon Papers, the government’s 7,000-page, 47-volume secret history of the Vietnam War. The documents were leaked to the New York Times, and although the film focuses on the Post and its publisher, Katharine Graham, it was the Times that spent three months reviewing the papers, then publishing articles about them beginning June 13, 1971. The Times defied a Nixon administration warning to stop but abided by a preliminary injunction granted June 15. Leaping into the gap, the Post’s version began appearing on June 18. On June 30, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 6-3 to lift the injunction against both papers, ruling that the government failed to justify prior restraint on publication.
The Washington Post: “We are not a little local paper anymore,” its editor, Ben Bradlee, proclaims in the movie, declaring an end to the Post’s cozy coverage of Washington. In the years before he joined as deputy managing editor in 1965, the Post lagged other publications in the capital, including the Evening Star and the Washington Daily News. The company was indeed, as the film has it, preparing to go public when the Pentagon Papers were leaked, and Bradlee himself noted that the newspaper’s Pentagon Papers experience made its later coverage of the Watergate scandal possible.
Katharine Graham (Streep): Her father, Eugene Meyer, bought the Post in 1933, and her husband, Phil, was his designated successor. But he killed himself in 1963, and Graham took over as publisher. “I was 45 and never had a job in my life,” she recalls in the film. She evolves in the movie, as in real life, from a Washington socialite enamored, like Bradlee, of John F. Kennedy into a savvy and resolute publisher, the first female Fortune 500 chief executive. She died in 2001.
Ben Bradlee (Hanks): A Boston Brahmin who attended Harvard, the Post’s irascible, relentless and profane editor was a Newsweek reporter before moving to the newspaper. He had been a Kennedy intimate and faced criticism later for not reporting on the president’s affairs. (He said he didn’t know about them.) He was also obsessed with playing second banana to the Times, as the movie indicates. Bradlee died in 2014.
Robert S. McNamara (Bruce Greenwood): Secretary of Defense under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and a trusted adviser of Graham’s. He commissioned the Pentagon Papers, which documented decades of White House deception about an unwinnable war that he, too, pursued. The bombshell historical study, McNamara explains lamely in “The Post,” was meant “for posterity,” not to be released publicly “until it can be read with some perspective” rather than when U.S. soldiers were still dying in 1971. McNamara died in 2009.
Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys): A disillusioned former Marine who drafted the Pentagon Papers study, which McNamara commissioned out of “guilt rather than courage,” he says in the movie. Ellsberg turned whistleblower while working as an analyst for the Rand Corp., a research group under contract to the Defense Department. He contacted the Times after several congressmen declined to make the papers public. He was charged under the Espionage Act and faced 115 years’ imprisonment, but the case ended in a mistrial because the government illegally gathered evidence (by, among other tactics, burgling his psychiatrist’s office). Ellsberg remains a vigorous voice against excessive official secrecy and is the author of a new book, “The Doomsday Machine.”
Neil Sheehan (Justin Swain): The Times correspondent who actually broke the Pentagon Papers exposé is barely seen on-screen but is the focus of Bradlee’s obsession. Sheehan, Bradlee believed, must be onto something big because he hasn’t had a byline in three months. Sheehan won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1989 book about the Vietnam War. Now 81, he hasn’t seen the film.
Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk): The Post’s assistant managing editor for national affairs had also worked at Rand, and he persuaded Ellsberg, his former colleague, to give him another copy of the Pentagon Papers after the Times was enjoined from publishing. A journeyman journalist, Bagdikian acknowledges in the film that whistleblowers “have conscience and conviction, and they also have ego.” Bagdikian later became a media critic and journalism school dean. He died in 2016.
Richard M. Nixon: The paranoid president — who, as a candidate in 1968 tried to sabotage Johnson’s peace initiatives in Vietnam — claimed that publication of the secret Pentagon Papers would jeopardize national security. The government’s campaign to discredit the whistleblowers foreshadowed the Watergate break-in a year later. In the film, the voice is actually Nixon’s from taped White House conversations.
Tony Bradlee (Sarah Paulson): Jacqueline Kennedy was quoted as telling her husband, “Jack, you always say that Tony is your ideal woman,” and Tony (Antoinette Pinchot Bradlee, to be precise) said the president made a pass, which she rebuffed. She and Bradlee divorced in 1975, and she died in 2011.
Judith Martin (Jessie Mueller): Later an etiquette columnist known as Miss Manners, she covered social events and made news herself in 1968 at Julie Nixon’s wedding: Martin slipped out of the press corps pen with the bridesmaids to better cover the event.