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The incredible true story behind Steven Spielberg’s The Post


Following the overwhelming success of the Oscar winning Spotlight in 2015, this year sees a new film exploring the incredible power of the press, as Steven Spielberg’s The Post finally hits our screens.

For those of you who have been wanting to find out more about the background of The Post, but didn’t know where to begin, we have you covered. Look no further than our handy guide to the incredible true story behind the movie.

The story

Based on true events, The Post dramatises The Washington Post’s exposure of the Pentagon Papers, and the bravery of the journalists who risked everything to inform the public of a shocking conspiracy.

What eventually became known as the Pentagon Papers was a detailed report chronicling both the Vietnam War and America’s involvement in the country between 1945 and 1967. It was commissioned in 1967 by the then Secretary of Defense of the United States Robert McNamara, who had, it's claimed, become disillusioned by the conflict and wanted to leave a written record to prevent similar future policy errors.

The study (officially titled the Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force) took over two years to complete and comprised 47 volumes and more than 3,000 pages of historical analysis, plus 4,000 pages of government documents. It reached 2.5 million words in total.

Originally a classified report, the first media story surrounding it in fact came from The New York Times, after a reporter named Neil Sheehan got wind of its existence from whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. The news caused national outrage: the papers exposed how the government had repeatedly misled the American public over the Vietnam War, a cover-up that implicated four presidents from Harry Truman to Lyndon B. Johnson.

Among the multitude of damning revelations, Johnson was revealed to have covertly expanded military operations into Cambodia and Laos, despite telling Americans that "we seek no wider war".

The Times was strongly advised by their outside law firm, Lord Day & Lord, not to publish anything surrounding the report. However its first article reached the public on 13th June 1971, and the study was subsequently dubbed the Pentagon Papers. In the ensuing frenzy, the Nixon administration obtained an injunction to prevent the report from being shared further.

While The Times was caught up in battle with the government, The Washington Post stepped in to make the public aware of the contents. Post reporter Ben Bagdikian (played in the movie by Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk) had been given portions of the study by Ellsberg, and in the ensuing furore Assistant U.S. Attorney General William Rehnquist asked the paper to cease publication.

The Washington Post defied the government’s request, leading to the threat of an injunction that was ultimately declined in favour of a free press.

Eventually the government agreed to hear the case for both The Times and The Washington Post and on 30th June 1971 the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the media, in the process allowing other news organisations to publish any aspects of the report that they deemed newsworthy.

The key players

Two of the central Washington Post figures were Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee, portrayed by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.

At the time of publication, Graham was the first-ever woman publisher of the newspaper, and it was her decision that ultimately led to the reports being published. Bradlee was editor, and stood alongside Graham as the paper faced threats from the government, possible closure and potential prison sentences.

Graham and Bradlee went on to play important roles in uncovering the Watergate conspiracy, eventually leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. These events were dramatised in classic movie All the President’s Men starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, with an Oscar winning Jason Robards as the tough-talking Bradlee.

The outcome

Four decades after the original press leak, in June 2011 the Pentagon Papers were declassified and are now readily available to be viewed by everyone.

The film

This isn’t the first time that this story has been brought to life on screen. Back in 2003, made-for-television film The Pentagon Papers documented the events leading up to the press publication of the report in 1971. Created by FX, the film starred James Spader and Paul Giamatti.

This time around the story will reach a much wider audience, with cast members including American Horror Story’s Sarah Paulson and Get Out’s Bradley Whitford starring alongside Streep and Hanks.

And with revered director Steven Spielberg behind the camera, plus Oscar winning Spotlight writer Josh Singer on screenplay duties, the film is already generating significant awards buzz, with six Golden Globe nominations including Best Motion Picture (Drama) and Best Screenplay.

The Post
is released on 19th January 2018. Don't forget to check out why Steven Spielberg is the master of the historical drama.

Hannah Dixon is an Unlimited card holder who blogs for Cineworld as part of our news team.