Steven Spielberg made his latest movie, The Post, in nine months, from script to final cut. “My wife,” he said, “had four kids, each in nine months, so she knows what nine months means in the creation of a life.” But a nine-month pregnancy is a long time; a nine-month movie is bewilderingly short. “My movies on average take about 14 months from script to screen—that’s the fast ones.”
The speed is all the more impressive because he has another film, Ready Player One, in post-production, and a third, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, ready to start shooting. In fact, the latter had to be put on hold, Spielberg said, because “we couldn’t find a six-year-old to play Edgardo after looking for a year.” He just lifted his faithful crew out of Edgardo and dropped them into The Post.
Why the hurry? “We all felt this film was not going to fall on deaf ears, that there was an audience that had been listening to this kind of bully-pulpit discrimination against the free press for long enough that they might want to see that this all began with Richard Nixon.”
The Post is an urgent reaction to Trump’s bellowing about fake news. It’s a movie with a message: all this happened before, but we survived, and this is how. Spielberg is once again being the finest cinematic flowering of the conscience of liberal America. “I don’t tweet,” he said pointedly, “I shoot.”
In 1971, a mass of documents—they came to be known as the Pentagon Papers—were leaked to The New York Times. They revealed lies and a cover-up about the military’s assessment that America was losing the Vietnam War. Nixon’s lawyers gagged the NYT, but then The Washington Post got hold of the papers and published them, as, subsequently, did most of the press in the land. The papers won.
“This was an urgent imperative for 2017, because, first, the irony of the numbers 1971-2017, you just have to move a few of those numbers around,” Spielberg said. “The pendulum has swung all the way back from the Nixon administration to what’s currently happening in our country—and to our country. But I also thought just the story of a newsroom dedicated to telling the truth and getting the truth out, despite every attempt by the Nixon administration to stop the truth being told, I felt that was just a timely story to tell.”
The Washington Post is the hero of this story, a fact that has annoyed some people at the NYT. This is not fair. The part of The New York Times is fully credited, and, in any case, the Post had much the more significant story. It was the underdog paper fighting for survival. Also, it was owned by a woman, Katharine Graham, who had to choose between backing down to the legal threat or publishing the papers—either choice could have destroyed the Post, and the latter could have had Graham and her editor imprisoned.
“I was very taken with the idea of a woman finally coming to the nexus of her career and her life, where she had to make a choice that was going to determine the success or failure of The Washington Post. I thought it was a pretty significant step forward in a story about women in the early 1970s, and that it reflected and brought light and dignity to what women today are going through, in this watershed moment that is happening for all of us.”
He started the film “way before women came forward with multiple accusations of misconduct by multiple men.” The Trump-Nixon link was planned; the condition of women at work was serendipitous.
This is a political thriller, his first, he said; he classified Bridge of Spies as a spy thriller. He likes embracing a new genre because he gets all his best ideas when he isn’t quite sure what he is doing and there’s an edge of panic.
“I get better ideas when I am standing on my heels, not on the flat of my soles. It’s because I don’t want to fall, and I need to regain my balance…When I get into a genre I’ve never done before, it’s scary but healthy.”
Anyway, here we are at the Mandarin Oriental in snowbound New York. It’s my third interview with him in 15 years, and my three basic impressions of the man are unchanged: he speaks in almost-impossible-to-cut extended paragraphs; his clothes are always casual but very buttoned up, as if he is containing himself (this time, a buttoned jacket with a neat scarf to protect against the snow outside); and, finally, he is probably the nicest powerful man I have ever interviewed.
He always speaks freely, unencumbered by nervous PRs, but on this occasion he did what he has never done before—he censored the conversation. We were talking about Jewishness, and I asked him about Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He has strong views, he said, but he didn’t want to “derail this interview” so that the big story coming out of it was not his film, but Trump and Jerusalem. Fair enough.
One thing that is unavoidable in any interview with Spielberg is family. His parents divorced while he was still at school, and so many of his films—Close Encounters, ET, even Bridge of Spies—seem to be about the reconstruction or salvation of a family. Even when it is not explicit, the theme is there. In The Post, Graham (Meryl Streep) and the Post’s editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), act as the conflicted parents of a bunch of fractious children, the reporters.
Yet the odd thing is that, even in life, he directed a familial reconstruction. For, over 25 years, his parents grew back together. “It was beautiful. There was a period when they didn’t speak, but through a number of different things my sisters and I were involved in that required my parents to be there…my parents grew closer and closer, to the point where my dad had remarried and my mom had lost her husband. My mom, my dad and my dad’s wife used to go to Disney Hall—they went to concerts together. My sisters and I would say, ‘How many kids could say, without getting married a second time, that they got their mom and dad back together again?’”
His mother, Leah, died in February last year. She was 97. Almost to the end, she kept running her Milky Way kosher restaurant in Los Angeles. His father, Arnold, is now 100. The family as a whole seems to be triumphantly intact. He said he has never been in therapy—why bother talking to a stranger?
“I could just as well talk to my family. We’re talkers, we don’t hide things from each other, we’re very honest with each other about how we feel we’re being treated, and about how others feel they’re being treated. That’s very therapeutic.”
He has seven children—one from his earlier marriage to Amy Irving, one from his second wife Kate Capshaw’s previous marriage, two adoptees and three of their own—plus four grandchildren. I ask him if any of them have ever told him he’s made a crap movie.
“I don’t think any of them have called anything ‘crap,’ but they might have said ‘Dad, I thought it was great,’ then never spoken about it again.”
The significance of all this is not merely biographical, it is aesthetic. Spielberg collects the paintings of Norman Rockwell, who conjured up a kind, sweet, brave, idealized vision of America and its families. Like Rockwell, he believes in his family, his country and its founding role as the harbinger of a better world.
“I knew when I took on this movie—because I am known as a member of the Hollywood liberal elite—there would be tons of labelling of myself and Meryl and Tom and the movie as partisan propaganda. But this isn’t partisanship. I didn’t make the movie in a very partisan way, because I really feel that patriotism is bipartisan—and I’m patriotic about my film. I’m patriotic about the script and the floors of the newsroom of The Washington Post and The New York Times in 1971.”
This, combined with his liberal belief in progress, means he is not always content merely to show, but to tell. He sometimes tags an explicit moral onto the end of his films—the second inaugural address in Lincoln or the children of survivors laying stones on the monument in Schindler’s List.
“People may say I am hammering the point too hard, but, to me, you sometimes have to be a little loud in this day and age. There’s so much diversion and so many ideas and themes vying for the attention of big audiences, and sometimes I feel I do have to hit the nail a little harder.”
This core faith in his role gives him a confidence that goes far beyond box-office receipts. I ask him how he would feel if The Post flopped. “It’s not about the audience, it’s about the process of getting the story told on film. It’s not about how it will be received. Once I finish the film, I’ve done what I had to do. If it flopped at the box office, I would feel that it would still be relevant 20 years from now.”
In fact, he has not just aimed this film at posterity. He also wants it to inspire young people to go out and watch All the President’s Men, Alan J Pakula’s film about Watergate, the scandal that ejected Nixon from the White House in 1974. It was exposed by The Washington Post, by then emboldened and strengthened by its success with the Pentagon Papers. “It’s one of my favorite political pictures. If The Post would inspire people to watch it, it would make me happy.”
The film-making process in this case clearly thrilled him. He said the quick making of the movie was “like trench warfare.” “I think we all felt like journalists on this. We felt we were in a kind of newsroom, checking our sources and checking the facts. If we got a fact wrong, we were so fluid, we were able to change it before we committed the scene to film.”
He was certainly standing on his heels throughout, notably with his two stars. There’s an early scene in which Hanks and Streep are having breakfast in a wood-paneled room. This is the first film in which they have appeared together. Really?
“Can you believe that?” Spielberg cried. “I didn’t believe it, either. I said to Tom, ‘I seem to remember you and Meryl being in movies together.’ And Tom said—he slips into a creditable impersonation of the booming voice—‘No, that was me and Meg Ryan!’”
But the scene is also odd because it is so un-Spielberg. From Jaws on, he made his name with astonishing camera movements—Hitchcock called him “the first one of us who doesn’t see the proscenium arch”—but this scene is static.
“I could see that, if I kept moving the camera, I would be editorializing. I would have made all the decisions for the audience. I sacrificed camera movement and montage in order to let the audience establish their own proximity to either Katharine or Ben, or both.”
He also went to immense trouble to capture Nixon, probably determined to link his sinister oddities to those of Trump. We only see him talking on the phone through a White House window, his back to us, but the hunched shoulders and the angry finger jabbing downwards instantly evoke the man. On top of that, he is played by himself. That is Nixon’s voice you hear. Spielberg acquired the recordings of his calls via a freedom of information request: “That’s the first president I’ve put in one of my movies.”
Anyway, here’s to our next interview, whenever, wherever. I’ll just close this one with one of his paragraphs, long, uneditable and, for any good ol’ hack, thrilling.
“This is my way—our way, because we’re all grown-up enough about this. It was done in the company of compassionate and mindful creative artists like Tom and Meryl—and the crew. We all thought we had something to say, because history had already said it. We thought it was illuminating to show how history dealt with this. And the fact the press will always survive. They may be pushed against a cliff and feel that nothing they say will be taken by a great portion of this country as the truth these days, because of the engineering of disinformation. But the pendulum swings both ways, and the press will survive—and this too shall pass.”
What happened next?
Katharine Graham went on to steer The Washington Post through the greatest political scoop of the era, Watergate—which led to the resignation of President Nixon. She gave up the title of publisher in 1979 and of chairwoman in 1991. She died in 2001, aged 84, having become the most distinguished figure in American journalism. Last month, one of her four children, William, killed himself, a terrible reprise of the suicide of her husband, Philip, in 1963, which led to her taking over the Post.
Ben Bradlee, the paper’s executive editor, also stepped down in 1991. He died, aged 93, in 2014. Having masterminded two of the greatest stories of his time, he was awarded the Legion of Honour in France, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama. He remains a secular saint to liberal America, the man who showed what the press could do.
Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon Papers, was hit with multiple charges under the Espionage Act that could have led to a life sentence, but, thanks to government incompetence and a superb defense team, all the charges were dismissed in 1973. He is 86, and his activism has continued—challenging the Iraq War decision by warning of another Vietnam, and now publishing a book exposing weaknesses in America’s nuclear-weapons control.
The Washington Post was sold by the Graham family in 2013 to Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, for $250m. The Bezos stewardship is being watched closely.