For Joshua Singer, the Golden Globe-nominated co-screenwriter of Steven Spielberg’s “The Post,” there’s something biblical in the tale of how The Washington Post and its publisher, Katharine Graham, defied the Nixon administration at great risk to publish stories on the top- secret Pentagon Papers in the 1970s.
“It’s when God says to Abraham, ‘Take your only son, bind him and prepare him for a [sacrificial] offering,’” Singer said. “Then God stays Abraham’s hand. It’s a test of Abraham and his faith in God, in the same way that Katharine is forced to raise her hand in a way that might slaughter her business, her legacy and her fortune.
“It’s because she sees that there is something greater than her legacy, which is the freedom of the press. For those values, she’s willing to sacrifice that business, in the same way that the value of God and the Jewish religion is one for which Abraham was willing to sacrifice his own son.”
The movie especially focuses on Graham, a former socialite who took on the position after her husband committed suicide. She was the one who eventually made the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers story, which revealed that United States political and military leaders continued the Vietnam War, to save face, even though they knew the U.S. couldn’t win. She did so even though the Post was threatened with federal action that could have destroyed the newspaper, her family’s longtime business.
“When you’re raised Jewish, there’s something in our Bible stories that’s all about raising one’s hand up against the status quo.” — Joshua Singer
“She was risking everything,” said Singer, who was raised in a Conservative Jewish family near Philadelphia.
In 2016, Singer won an Academy Award for co-writing another movie about newspapers, “Spotlight.” It featured the story of a journalist he deemed as among “the pantheon of great Jewish heroes”: Marty Baron, who faced anti-Semitism when he became editor of The Boston Globe in 2001 yet went on to publish stories about pedophile priests in that mostly Catholic city.
Singer had a biblical parable about Baron, as well.
“When you’re raised Jewish, there’s something in our Bible stories that’s all about raising one’s hand up against the status quo,” he told the Journal in 2016. “It’s Abraham having the temerity to break all those idols in a land where everyone is worshipping them. Or David, a guy with a slingshot, standing up against a giant and knocking him down.”
“The Post,” he said, is “not about Jewish heroes but American heroes.”
The film began when Singer’s co-screenwriter, Liz Hannah, read Graham’s memoir, “A Personal History,” about six year ago. She realized that Graham’s Pentagon Papers dilemma “was the moment she found her voice,” Hannah said.
“One of the themes in the film is Katharine being the lone woman in the boardroom, and the idea of being the sole woman in a male-dominated industry is something I felt was very relatable,” said Hannah, who was raised in a Christian household in New York and Connecticut.
After Spielberg and actors Tom Hanks (who plays the Post’s executive editor, Ben Bradlee) and Meryl Streep (Graham) signed on to the project, Singer was brought in to collaborate on reworking the script with Hannah. He initially had trepidations about tackling another journalism saga, but then he fell in love with Hannah’s script.
“Liz’s genius was telling the story of the Pentagon Papers through the lens of Katharine Graham,” Singer said.
The screenwriters spent time with the Graham and Bradlee families in order to ensure the accuracy of their script.
“I think Katharine and Ben liked and respected each other, but their [platonic] relationship is a bit like a young marriage that is singularly tested over the course of the film,” Singer said. “One of the incredible things is that they actually got stronger because of this test.”
And that prepared them to tackle their next big story — the Watergate scandal, which was captured in the acclaimed 1976 film “All the President’s Men.”
“The Post” hasn’t been without critics, who have charged that the filmmakers ignored that it was The New York Times that originally broke the story of the Pentagon Papers; the Post ran with it after the Times was prevented by courts from publishing further on the matter.
In response, Singer said the film does give due credit to the Times and focuses on that newspaper’s original Pentagon Papers reporter, Neil Sheehan.
“We reached out to a lot of folks from the Times, some of whom didn’t want to talk to us, but some did,” he said. “The story of Katharine is the one that we
wanted to tell, but the movie is also a celebration of the Fourth Estate and the First Amendment.”
The movie resonates at a time when President Donald Trump has threatened news organizations and made allegations of “fake news.”
“Our film is about the role of the press,” Singer said, “which is to keep our leaders in check and to hold them accountable.”
“The Post” opens in Los Angeles theaters on Dec. 22.