Who’s Who in ‘The Post’: A Guide to the Players in a Pivotal Era
Posted December 25, 2017 3:24 p.m. EST
The newsroom crackles with verisimilitude, its rotary 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, may conjure up newspaper dramas like “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 though 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 Setting: While “The Post” is a stark reminder of what a company town Washington can be, the movie was actually made at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn. A vacant office building in White Plains, New York, substituted for The Post; the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of New York City on West 44th Street for The Times. The pressroom is The New York Post’s.
The Washington Post: “We are not a little local paper any more,” 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 behind 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 Ben Bradlee himself noted that the newspaper’s Pentagon Papers experience made its coverage of the Watergate scandal possible. The Post later led the way on Watergate; The Times dominated the Pentagon Papers coverage.
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, with John F. Kennedy into a savvy and resolute publisher, the first female Fortune 500 chief executive.
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 American soldiers were still dying in 1971. McNamara died in 2009.
Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys): A disillusioned former Marine who drafted the 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 congressman 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 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. Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts): Frederick Sessions Beebe, nicknamed Fritz, was a lawyer who rose to chairman of the board of The Washington Post Co. He was largely focused on the company’s magazine Newsweek. He died in 1973.
Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford): This adviser who vehemently opposes publication of the Pentagon Papers is a composite fictional character.
Lally Weymouth (Alison Brie): The oldest of Katharine and Philip Graham’s four children, and now senior associate editor of The Post.
Meg Greenfield (Carrie Coon): An astute confidante of Katharine Graham, she won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing and became The Post’s editorial page editor and a Newsweek columnist. She died in 1999.
Abe Rosenthal (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Punch Sulzberger (Gary Wilmes): In the 1970s, A.M. Rosenthal was The Times’ managing editor and, like Bradlee, an imposing presence. Like the on-screen exchange between Bradlee and Graham, Arthur Ochs (Punch) Sulzberger, a former Marine and The Times’ understated publisher, asked what was the worst that could happen if The Times printed The Pentagon Papers despite the White House’s warnings, and Rosenthal replied: “You could go to jail.” Rosenthal died in 2006, Sulzberger in 2012.
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.
William H. Rehnquist: He was an assistant attorney general at the time. His disembodied voice can be heard over the phone warning The Post against publishing. Later that year, Nixon nominated him to the Supreme Court, where he later became chief justice. He died in 2005.
Nora Ephron: The acclaimed writer and filmmaker to whom the film is dedicated. She was a friend and colleague of Hanks and Streep, as well as the former wife of Carl Bernstein, of Woodward and Bernstein fame. She died in 2012.