Genre: Drama – True Story
Premise: In 1971, The Washington Post had to make a decision on whether to publish the infamous “Pentagon Papers,” which exposed a multitude of injustices that the government was hiding about the Vietnam War.
About: Unknown screenwriter, Liz Hannah, has just pulled off a miracle. Her script, The Post, which made last year’s Black List, has attached Steven Spielberg to direct, and will star Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. Hmm, I wonder if this movie will be up for any Oscars. Up until this point, Hannah’s biggest claim to fame was as a production assistant on Ugly Betty. It just goes to show that if you put in the hard work, keep writing, and keep getting better at this wacky craft known as screenwriting, good things can happen. Bonus note: This will be the first time that Meryl Streep will work with Steven Spielberg as a live actress (she voiced a part in Spielberg’s A.I.).
Writer: Liz Hannah
Details: 117 pages
If you asked every screenwriter what their biggest dream was, I’m sure number 1 on the list would be a 7 figure spec sale. But number 2 is probably that Steven Spielberg wants to direct your script.
I don’t think the average amateur screenwriter realizes just how difficult that is, though. Spielberg directs about one movie every two years. It’s not hard to do the math. He’s probably got 5-7 movies left in him. To secure one of those projects with a script of yours? It’d be like winning the lottery. Hell, it’s probably tougher than that.
But The Post is a tricky project that perpetuates a movie type Hollywood would like to distance itself from: Old White People making movies about Old White People. We’re supposed to be more diverse, more progressive, moving away from #OscarsSoWhite. A bunch of white dudes and one white woman clamoring for Academy attention doesn’t fit that mold. So it’ll be interesting to see where this goes.
The year is 1971 and Katharine “Kay” Graham has inherited the prestigious Washington Post after her husband, beloved by everyone, blew his brains out. Kay doesn’t want to own the paper. In fact, she doesn’t know what she wants. She’s just trying to figure out what comes next.
Meanwhile, Ben Bradlee, editor of The Post, is doing his best to keep up with the New York Times, which always seems to be a step ahead of the Post. Just as he’s using that problem as a rallying cry to motivate his work force, the Times prints the first set of the Pentagon Papers, papers stolen from the White House that expose the government for all sorts of injustices that occurred during the Vietnam War.
The Times story is immediately shut down by the government after an injunction, leaving what may be the most important story ever to disappear from the public eye. That’s when Bradlee realizes that the Post can come to the rescue. If they can get a hold of these papers, they can print them, saving both America and his paper.
There’s only one problem. Kay is BFFs with everyone in the White House. Hell, she and her husband used to hang out with JFK. By printing these documents, which are likely illegally obtained, she not only destroys all her government relationships, but she puts the paper at risk of being sued by the White House. Worst case scenario: there might not be a Post if these papers are printed.
Bradlee, who was good friends with Kay’s husband, has never liked Kay, nor Kay him. But if this once-in-a-lifetime story is going to be printed, these two will have to find common ground and work together. And they’ll need to do it before the government swoops in and puts the kibosh on these papers for good.
When you zoom out, there are a lot of things to like about The Post. For starters, its two main characters, Kay and Bradlee, don’t like each other. What do you want at the heart of every piece of drama? CONFLICT. So when your two main characters are diametrically opposed to everything the other does, you’ve taken the first step towards a good movie.
The stakes in The Post are also very high. You get the sense that, if published, this article could change the world. Oh, and let’s not forget about the urgency. Our crew only has 9 hours to decide whether they print the story or not. If they wait another day, the government will probably come in and kill the story.
The biggest problem with The Post though is how Inside Baseball it is. If I went to the casual sports fan and said, did you know Kris Bryant of the Cubs has a WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of 7.7? Chances are they’d stare at me like I had 16 heads. More tellingly, they wouldn’t give a shit. They just enjoy watching Kris Bryant play.
All this stuff in The Post about how the paper is run, with the editor, the CEO, the president, the owner — I didn’t care about any of it. But worse, it prevented me from enjoying the goddamn story (aka watching Kris Bryant play).
One of the keys to writing a great script is to identify the main story points then build a plot around them, stripping away everything else. The main story points in The Post are the conflict-laden relationship between Kay and Bradlee, the conflict-of-interest in Kay’s friendships with the government, finding the Times’s source who had the papers, and, finally, the decision of whether to print the papers or not.
Whenever the script stayed with one of those points, it was good. When it drifted into the tiniest details of The Post and its reporters, it lost me. That’s the Inside Baseball stuff you don’t need. And I realize there’s a fine line. You do want detail in your story. But it’s your job to know when the details start to interfere with the drama. And that happened too many times here.
Another issue I had was Kay herself. Her backstory was wonderful. She’s a woman whose husband was beloved by all, who then shot himself, leaving her as the reluctant owner of the paper, and who detests her position because she doesn’t fit into the Good Old Boy’s network.
Here’s the thing though. Kay doesn’t want anything to do with the paper. So she doesn’t really care about the Pentagon Papers. To her, they’re more an annoyance than anything. “Annoying” isn’t dramatic. One of the reasons we’re so invested in Bradlee’s plight to print the papers is because he actually gives a shit.
What they should’ve done is focus less on how Kay doesn’t care about the paper, and more on Kay’s relationships with people in the government. Then, as Kay got closer to printing the papers, she’d have to make decisions on whether to destroy all those relationships in the name of the story. A character who doesn’t give a shit either way isn’t a very interesting character.
I’m torn by The Post. It has the requisite conflict within it to merit a movie. But its drama gets buried in unnecessary details and a main character who doesn’t even want to be involved. Maybe Spielberg will exploit the script’s strengths by streamlining the story. I hope so. If this is just another Inside Baseball stuffy #OscarsSoWhite movie, I don’t think it can thrive, even with its A-list talent.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Wanna supercharge a character? Give them a conflict of interest. Kay has a duty to do what’s best for the paper. However, she’s good friends with the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, the man who’s done all these horrible things that are exposed in the Pentagon Papers. Whenever your characters’ decisions are difficult, you’re creating dramatic tension. Whenever your characters’ decisions are easy, you’re creating boredom.