September 19, 2018

Spielberg Goes Biblical

The credits were rolling when it hit me: “The Post” was over. Time to go home. “Why am I still sitting here?” I looked around and saw others still sitting in their seats. “Why are they still sitting here?” “Why are we all still sitting here?!”

In my opinion, the answer is in the Bible.

It is accurate to frame Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” as a retelling of the 1971 Pentagon Papers drama, but it is also overly simplistic. Spielberg transforms a historical narrative into a profound commentary on American culture, partially conveyed by the choices made for the beginning and the end of the film.

Stories usually open with “Once upon a time” and end with “The End.” The soft ambiguity of “Once upon a time” signals that whatever preceded the story is unimportant. Correspondingly, the hard certainty of “The End” says that everything important to the story has been told. The narrative exists only in the space between “Once upon and time” and “The End.”

The Bible does the opposite.

It starts with a jarringly definitive “In the beginning” and it ends so gently that the narrative is never formally closed. It follows that the Bible, by its narrative structure, is signaling to the reader that the Bible is important from The Beginning — it has always been important. More significantly, the teachings of the Bible endure long after the story ends, — it always will be important.

Spielberg faced a dilemma about the beginning of “The Post.” When does the story of the Pentagon Papers begin? The first moment of this story is a finite place and time. But which moment?

“The Post” begins its story in Vietnam. Daniel Ellsberg, the man who eventually leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press, is on the battlefield documenting the war. A soldier notices Ellsberg and wonders aloud, “Who’s the longhair?” meaning, who is the hippie civilian?

That phrase stuck with me because Ellsberg is an outsider and is identified by his long hair. For the duration of the film, the outsider is the publisher of The Washington Post, Katharine “Kay” Graham, played by Meryl Streep. She is an outsider in a corporate world dominated by men and, as a woman, she is also identified by her long hair. Graham’s journey in the film is the story of how and when she found her voice as a strong, confident, trailblazing woman who confronted and stood up to a powerful White House.

In a movie with consequences of biblical proportions, Spielberg seems to take a cue from the Bible.

There is a third outsider identified by her long hair in “The Post.” Meg Greenfield, played by Carrie Coon, is the only woman on the editorial board of The Washington Post. As the film rises to its crescendo, Greenfield is holding court in the newsroom. She is on the phone with a contact at the court, and she is relaying everything she is hearing. Greenfield has the attention of the entire newsroom. The air is silent and heavy with dramatic pause when a middle-aged white male editor barges into the newsroom and steals her thunder. Reading from a slip of paper, he exuberantly announces victory. For a moment Greenfield’s face falls, but she composes herself and gets another chance to shine a few moments later when she dictates Justice Hugo Black’s forceful opinion — uninterrupted.

In a profound film about women’s empowerment, this moment was a reminder that we adapt and evolve slowly. Kay Graham may have found her voice but women could still expect to be interrupted by men oblivious to the shifting social environment around them.

“The Post” could have ended with the euphoric reaction to the Supreme Court ruling in favor of the media against the president. But Spielberg ends by setting the stage for the Watergate scandal. In a movie with consequences of biblical proportions, Spielberg seems to take a cue from the Bible and opts for a gentle, open-ended final scene.

Long after the Pentagon Papers were published, freedom of the press remains an issue. Long after Kay Graham found her voice, treating women fairly remains an issue. Long after Meg Greenfield was interrupted, respecting women remains an issue.

“The Post” does not conclude with finality because, just like the Bible, it is the beginning of a long struggle, not a story about one particular struggle. And that explains why we lingered in the theater watching the credits roll.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal

“The Post” attempts high-stakes drama with history

NOR_D11_061317_1665_R2 – Tom Hanks (as Ben Bradlee) and Meryl Streep (as Kay Graham) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s THE POST. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise.

Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” recalls a pivotal time in 1971 when Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) invokes the First Amendment right to freedom of the press while publishing top secret government conspiracy papers in The Washington Post.  Despite threats of jail time and bankruptcy, Graham stands by her paper and the reporting.

While the First Amendment may be important here, it’s actually Graham’s role in history that strikes a weightier chord.  Unfortunately, the narrative doesn’t make the significance as apparent as it should.  It becomes necessary for Tony Bradlee (Sarah Paulson, wasted here) to spell it out.  Her job isn’t just to make it clear for her husband Ben (Tom Hanks) within the context of the movie, but for the audience as well.  And, if a movie can’t make its own point without utilizing a character for this purpose, then how successful has it really been?

“The Post” certainly attempts to create high-stakes drama and lays out the history well.  In fact, the film relies heavily on an alternating blue/yellow color palette to this end.  For more about “The Post” and how these colors are used specifically, take a look below:

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All photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Screenwriter Sees Biblical Parallel in ‘The Post’

Meryl Streep stars as Katharine Graham in Steven Spielberg’s “The Post.” Photos by Niko Tavernise

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.

From left: Tom Hanks, David Cross, John Rue, Bob Odenkirk, Jessie Mueller and Philip Casnoff in “The Post.”

“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.