The Vietnam War still looms large in the collective American psyche, an instance where the cause being fought for was more muddled than usual. So too, the tendency of powerful figures to use whatever tools available to silence dissent and maintain their secrets is as old as time. Both of those realities came together in 1971 when former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked what came to be known as “The Pentagon Papers” to The New York Times in 1971. While the Times published a number of stories on the documents, which contained a classified analysis of the Vietnam War, it wasn’t until later that year when The Washington Post picked up the story that things really heated up.
The Post, the new movie from director Steven Spielberg tells that part of the story. Meryl Streep plays Katherine “Kay” Graham, publisher of the Post from 1969 to 1979. When she’s informed by editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) that he intends to publish reports based on The Pentagon Papers it sets off a whirlwind of corporate and legal action. The Nixon administration moves to stifle that reporting, just as it did for the Times, citing national security concerns. Graham and Bradlee, then, must weigh the threat of being arrested for treason against their duty to inform the public of the real reason behind the Vietnam War.
Hanks and Streep are shown only as small figures in the corner of the photo on the first poster as they walk up a massive set of concrete stairs, a representation of the issues they must surmount in their quest to tell the truth.
Three character posters featured Streep and Hanks, each getting their own one-sheet and then both being featured on the last one. The design isn’t great – it’s a bit artificial looking – but it communicates to the audience that these two big stars are attached, which is one of the primary messages needing to be shared, so they work.
What seems to be the theatrical poster shows both leads together, Hanks as Bradlee working hard at the typewriter in front of him (which had to be fun for him given that he’s a devotee of the machines) and her looking on as if she’s questioning his actions, or at least keeping tabs on him.
On all three there’s no copy or tagline, just the names of the two leads along with that of the director and the title of the movie.
The first trailer has Bradlee meeting with Graham to tell her he almost has what would come to be known as the Pentagon Papers. He’s on a quest for the truth to hold powerful people accountable, regardless of the threats he and his team face and the consequences they might face. The stakes are high as they could all go to prison for what’s essentially treason and the paper shut down. Nixon is gunning for them to preserve these secrets.
Not only is the story still all-too-relevant for our times, especially as the current administration seeks to hide more and more information, but it’s clearly being sold based on the promise of watching Hanks and Streep go toe-to-toe to do what’s right. It’s maybe a little overly tense for what’s likely a more subdued political drama, but that’s what’s going to make the strongest impression so it’s fine.
Online and Social
Scroll down and the first content you come across is the “Trailer” along with various other videos including a few TV spots and a couple clips. After that is an “About” section that makes sure to mention this is the first time Streep, Hanks and Spielberg have worked together. Finally there’s a “Gallery” of eight stills that show different groupings of the cast.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
A first extended TV spot hit many of the same beats as the trailer, showing the efforts by Bradlee to gain access to the secret papers and the corporate machinations exercised by Graham to keep the company out of legal trouble. Another shorter spot just cut all those elements down a bit.
Media and Publicity
Aside from a few comments from the cast and crew here and there one of the first big publicity pops came when the movie was given its current title, a change from the previous working title of “The Papers.”
As the movie started making the festival rounds, Spielberg revealed the project was put in front of him just nine months prior to release, leading to a hurried and condensed shooting schedule to get the movie out before the end of the year. That deadline was important not just for awards consideration but also because everyone agreed the story couldn’t be more timely than it is right now.
In an interesting coincidence, Bradlee was the subject of a documentary on HBO that tracked his rise in the newspaper business as well as his fight against the Nixon White House and other islands of power needing to be held accountable.
While it wasn’t part of the movie’s actual publicity, Streep appeared at events like this to speak about the push for income and other social equality for women.
The journey of the movie’s script over the years from draft to being chosen as Spielberg’s next project was told by screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, who talked about creating something historical yet timely that quickly captured the attention of Hollywood’s big wigs.
Hanks also made media appearances, talking with Stephen Colbert about working with Spielberg again, Streep for the first time and how relevant the story continues to be. The two also appeared together to hit similar talking points.
Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Abe Rosenthal of The New York Times, was profiled as this is just one of a number of supporting yet essential roles he’s played in movies coming out in the last few months.
Finally, a campaign that makes me feel like it’s awards season. This is the kind of movie, with the kind of stars and the kind of director, that *should* be released in the last month of the year because everything about it says not “escape” but “ponder.” The cast has made no secret of the story being not only timely but timeless, a needed reminder that the press is supposed to be oppositional, to push the boundaries of what is protected under the law. Only then can it fully do its job of holding to account people who would change the law to keep their dirty deeds far from the public eye.
Societal commentary aside, this feels like a big event not because it features a superhero squaring off against a massive CGI villain but because it’s Spielberg, Streep and Hanks. Three of the most dependable, talented and enjoyable filmmaking talents of the last 40 years coming together under one banner is worth celebrating and taking notice of. That’s why that’s assemblage has been the single focus of most of the campaign. The chances of success lie in it attracting an audience that would like a break from Star Wars and superheroes and see a more serious story delivered by some of their favorite creators.
PICKING UP THE SPARE
Another story, this time directly from screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, about how they seized the opportunity to channel their own issues into this bit of history.
A new series of TV spots like this have come out since the film hit theaters that position the Washington Post reporters in the story as being on a high moral crusade to save lives and expose corruption.
The New York Times is poking a thumb in the eye of the Washington Post with a full-page ad for the book based on the “Pentagon Papers” based on the Times’ reporting, even name-dropping the film while doing so.
Nice profile here of costar Bob Odenkirk, who’s having a great year, including a substantial role in the film.
A new featurette strongly leans into how the movie is about a woman who takes charge of not just a company but also a movement, as well as focusing on the women who helped make the movie on all levels.
Fox has released a really, really odd TV commercial to promote the movie’s home video release that adds a CNN-like news ticker across the bottom. For such a serious movie this skirts the line of almost being tongue-in-cheek. Also, it’s not the best call to create the appearance of something being news when we’re having such a serious conversation about the false or misleading stories, especially when the subject of the story is journalism itself.