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Oscars: Steven Spielberg’s ‘The Post’ Arrives With the Zeitgeist in Its Sights

When producer Amy Pascal first acquired Liz Hannah’s spec script “The Post” she thought, “Hillary Clinton is going to win [the presidency], so this will be perfect,” the former Sony Pictures head said at the film’s first west coast screening on Sunday night. “It was the story of a woman finding her voice, and an entire country finding its voice.”

Last year’s election, of course, went in another direction, but it was still an important theme to explore, perhaps more important than ever.

Alongside members of the film’s cast and crew, Pascal was speaking to an audience of Academy, guild, and press members who filled Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck Theater for a look at director Steven Spielberg’s latest effort, one of the awards season’s most anticipated releases. It also screened in New York on Sunday, with Spielberg and key players Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep among those in attendance.

The film, which recounts The Washington Post’s handling of the Pentagon Papers drama of 1971, stars Hanks as Post editor Ben Bradlee alongside Streep as the paper’s publisher, Katharine Graham. If it sounds like a mixture tailor-made for Oscar recognition, well, it is. Any movie centered on issues like press freedom and gender equality is bound to have an impact in this climate, let alone one helmed by an industry titan, packed with tony actors.

For Hannah, who hammered out her first draft of the screenplay last summer at her kitchen table, the goal was simply finding representation (no pun intended). “I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll get an agent,’” she said. Before long, Pascal had purchased her work, Spielberg, Hanks and Streep were reading it, and Hannah was pinching herself. “I’m going to wake up at some point,” she joked.

But she had zeroed in on a moment in Graham’s storied life that resonated and, despite being history, felt urgent. Spielberg and his team were hard at work prepping “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,” from a Tony Kushner screenplay, but by late-February, every gear had shifted and “The Post” was rushed into pre-production.

“This couldn’t wait,” Spielberg, who is also in post-production on “Ready Player One,” reportedly told the New York audience Sunday.

Oscar-winning “Spotlight” screenwriter Josh Singer came on board just 10 weeks before shooting started. Prior to the screening, he told Variety he was admittedly a bit nervous going back to the journalism well again. But there was an interesting difference between the two projects. “‘Spotlight’ was a journalism school movie, how to report a story,” he said. “This was much more of a business school movie, how to run a business.” Much of the drama focuses on the repercussions of publishing such explosive material at a time when the Post was preparing for its first public offering.

Spielberg called on a who’s who of film, television, and theater actors to fill out his cast. Joining Hanks and Streep are Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, David Cross, Bruce Greenwood, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Jesse Plemons, Matthew Rhys, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Bradley Whitford, among others. At the Los Angeles screening, casting director Ellen Lewis noted how with a film like this, stuffed with real-life characters, fidelity is a bit of a sliding scale. “I know what everybody looked like, but it’s not about casting lookalikes. It’s about capturing the essence,” she said. “That’s how we approached every role, keeping an open mind creatively.”

Sunday’s screenings notably came as members of the Screen Actors Guild’s nominating committee were in the thick of voting for this year’s SAG Awards. Screeners of the film will also go out to the group with plenty of time to spare before the Dec. 10 voting deadline — a crucial measure given the far-flung nature of the nominating committee. An ensemble like this is bound to make an impact.

Meanwhile, the star wattage and laureled prestige of the film’s two central stars is well-leveraged, enough for instant spots in the Oscar discussion. Streep, however, has the richest opportunity with Graham, a woman coming into her confidence in an industry dominated by men. The actress is 20 nominations (and three Oscars) deep, showing no signs of losing her stride with the Academy. So you wouldn’t be out of line to pencil her in for a record-extending 21st.

Hanks, too, has hardly wanted for Academy attention, with five nominations to his credit and a pair of Oscars on his mantle. Nevertheless, his last nomination was for “Cast Away” 17 years ago, and despite recently being tipped for notices in films like “Captain Phillips,” “Saving Mr. Banks,” “Sully,” and Spielberg’s own “Bridge of Spies,” he has struggled to make his way back into the lineup. That could end here, particularly with this year’s lead actor competition proving to be soft and Hanks delivering something unexpected; Bradlee is frankly a bit of a bastard, and that makes for an unusual clash with the actor’s nice-guy ethos.

All in all, it shouldn’t be difficult to chart a course through the season with a film that engages the zeitgeist as this one does. Even setting aside the echoes of a current presidential administration consistently badgering the constitutional rights of a free press, “women finding their voice” is a concept that has taken on new weight recently. And “The Post” speaks aloud the subtext of a year dominated by female-centric stories like “Lady Bird,” “The Shape of Water,” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Expect that to be the rally cry as Spielberg’s film sails out into the race.

Fittingly, a final card in the closing credits dedicates the film to the late journalist and filmmaker Nora Ephron. Not only was she a key collaborator with Hanks and Streep over the years, but, like Graham, she was a trailblazer in an industry that stacked the odds against her.

“The Post” hits theaters Dec. 22.

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