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Spielberg’s ‘The Post’ Tells The Story Of The Pentagon Papers

Actor Bob Odenkirk talks about playing journalist Ben Bagdikian

Photo credit: Twentieth Century Fox

In Steven Spielberg's new film "The Post," Bob Odenkirk plays real life journalist Ben Bagdikian, who was a key player in publishing the Pentagon Papers.

GUESTS:

Bob Odenkirk, 'The Post' actor

Beth Accomando, KPBS arts reporter

“The Post” opened this weekend in San Diego. The new Steven Spielberg film looks to the story of Katherine Graham, the first female newspaper publisher, and the Washington Post as it attempts to publish the Pentagon Papers. Actor Bob Odenkirk talks about playing Ben Bagdikian, a reporter who was key in breaking the story.

Companion viewing

“All the President’s Men” (1976)

“The Pentagon Papers” (2003)

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” (2009)

The Post” opened this weekend in San Diego. The new Steven Spielberg film looks to the story of Katherine Graham, the first female newspaper publisher, and the Washington Post as it attempts to publish the Pentagon Papers.

Actor Bob Odenkirk (of "Better Call Saul") talks about playing Ben Bagdikian, a reporter who was key in breaking the story.

“The Post” could literally be played directly into “All the President’s Men” to seamlessly tell an epic story about The Washington Post and a pair of groundbreaking journalistic enterprises.

But the one thing that is distinctly different about the two films is that Katherine Graham has no presence in “All the President’s Men” but she is pivotal to “The Post.” That’s because Spielberg wanted his film to be, at least in part, a story of female empowerment. He wanted to show that the newspaper business was a men’s club and she was the first woman to break in and she broke in at a particularly tense moment in the history of The Washington Post, the paper she took over after her husband committed suicide.

Although Graham’s story is key to the film, “The Post” is at its core an ensemble piece. Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks head the cast as publisher Graham and editor Ben Bradlee, respectively. But they, like the real characters they play, are surrounded by a great supporting team. In the film, it’s Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, Carrie Coon as Meg Greenfield, David Cross as Howard Simons, and Philip Casnoff as Chalmer Roberts.

Both films share a tense sense of drama, in fact both play out as thrillers even though they lack many of the tropes audiences expect from a thriller such as car chases, threat of physical violence and more flamboyant style. Both these films find tension in dialogue scenes and the grueling task of uncovering information through dogged research and persistence.

Odenkirk was only 9 years old when the story of the Pentagon Papers originally broke so he only became familiar with the events when he began making the film and read Bagdikian’s autobiography, which gave Odenkirk the elements he wanted to emphasize in his performance.

“His intelligence,” Odenkirk said was the main trait he wanted to convey. “In his autobiography, he also talks about early on realizing that as a journalist he would do a better job if he could recede a little bit and kind of blend into the environment he could get more out of people. He could observe more and people would be more forthcoming. So, he was a guy who was very good at sort of becoming a fly on the wall. And I tried to use that in the group scenes in the movie, he’s quiet and a listener.”

'The Post' Film Clip

Odenkirk is perhaps the best thing in the film. He makes Baddikian a quiet and persistent man who doesn’t seem driven by ego but who also recognizes a great story when it comes his way.

Odenkirk described how Spielberg guided his performance.

Odenkirk recalled that Spielberg came to him and said, “’I figured out your story, your story is a noir suspense story, and that’s how I am going to shoot it and you’re going to be a detective essentially from like a '40s movie on the hunt for a killer, but in this case it’s the Pentagon Papers.’ So there is a lot of great dramatic framing for my character. He also sees that connection to the 1970s and the kind of vérité vibe of ‘All the President’s Men.’”

“The Post” is a fascinating film because it’s a riveting story that feels especially contemporary now as we witness another president who maintains an adversarial relationship with the press.

But the film suffers from two flaws.

First, the miscasting of Tom Hanks as Bradlee. Hanks has to work hard to try and convince us that he’s the gruff, tough newspaperman that Jason Robards seemed to so effortlessly convey in “All the President’s Men.”

And second, a script that resorts to almost sitcom simplicity to depict Graham as out of place in the boys’ club of newspaper publishing. Spielberg and the script have Streep bump into furniture, fumble papers, and seem almost mousy in the presence of men in power. This seems to be done to make her story arc seem more impressive, to allow her to make a greater change as she assumes power and proves herself. But look at any photos and videos of the real Graham and all you see is strength, poise and confidence.

“The Post” proves compelling despite these shortcomings, and it tells an important story that people should see. It tries to convey why the printing of the Pentagon Papers was important and why it needed to be done. It sets up a nice contrast to the immediacy of today’s news cycle where information breaks on Twitter and can trend in an instant with not just the media but also millions of people able to chime in simultaneously.

In the film, we see how much work goes into researching a story, writing it, editing it, setting the type, proofing it and physically running a printing press to get the paper actually into the hands of readers.

But “The Post” is also about how the American press of the 1970s made a stand and insisted it had a right to publish information that it deemed necessary to the public and to the very concept of American democracy, and that represented exactly why the Constitution guaranteed freedom of the press.

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