Los Angeles -- In spring and summer 1971, the American political landscape was on fire. In March, the Weather Underground set off a bomb in the U.S. Capitol. In April, half a million people marched on Washington to protest the Vietnam War. And in June, the Nixon administration battled with the New York Times and the Washington Post over the publication of the classified Pentagon Papers, which revealed years of deception at the highest levels of the government regarding the conduct of the war.
At the time, Tom Hanks wasn’t particularly aware of all this. He was a 14-year-old kid from Oakland, finishing up his run at Bret Harte Junior High, and he had things other than politics on his mind.
“I didn’t pay that much attention to what was going on,” Hanks recalled on a recent afternoon in Santa Monica. “I paid attention to things that 14-year-olds pay attention to: the Oakland Raiders and the California Golden Seals hockey team and girls and stuff.”
Cut to winter 2017, and the American political landscape is once again on fire. One of Hollywood’s most universally beloved stars, Hanks is now 61, though he still has a boyish, excitable quality — amplified this afternoon by the double caffeine hit of a Diet Coke and a latte. And this time, he is very much engaged with what’s going on.
In Steven Spielberg’s new period drama, “The Post,” which opened locally Friday, Hanks stars as the late Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, who, along with the paper’s pioneering publisher, Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), stepped in to publish the Pentagon Papers after the Nixon administration sued the New York Times to halt publication.
With critics lauding Hanks’ performance as the brash, charismatic Bradlee — portrayed by Jason Robards in an Oscar-winning turn in 1976’s “All the President’s Men” — “The Post” has suddenly placed the actor not only in this year’s awards-season conversation, but in the thick of today’s political debate.
A longtime history buff, Hanks marvels at the echoes between then and now as the Trump administration engages daily in its own battle with the mainstream news media.
“All this time passes and nothing really changed,” he said. “It was the same sort of language and almost the same subject then as what’s happening now — minus Twitter feeds and cable news.”
If anything, Hanks sees the situation today as even more fraught, the stakes even higher.
“The Nixon administration waged almost a quaint assault on the 1st Amendment,” he said. “The facts were understood then — it was the opinion you had of them that was up for grabs. The thing that’s happening now is almost a Bizarro Superman war on reason.”
As “The Post” was shooting last summer, Hanks found the historical resonances at times downright uncanny.
“There was one day where something had happened with the Russia investigation — it might have been (former national security advisor Michael) Flynn getting fired — and we were watching it on one of the period TVs in Ben Bradlee’s office,” he remembered. “Here we are, in these Nixon-era clothes, watching on a Nixon-era TV, and we all looked up, like, ‘What year is this? Is this a Rod Serling (“Twilight Zone”) episode where we have a magic TV that can see into the future?’”
Years ago, Hanks had met Bradlee, who died in 2014, and his wife, Sally Quinn, socially on a number of occasions through a mutual friend, the late writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron.
“He was a big personality,” Hanks said. “Everybody had an anecdote about Ben. Everybody had an amusing saga.”
Diving into the research, Hanks keyed in on one quote from Bradlee that seemed to sum up his hard-nosed yet idealistic journalistic ethos: “You have to be cynical without being a cynic.”
“The Post” marks Hanks’ fifth time being directed by Spielberg, following “Saving Private Ryan,” “Catch Me If You Can,” “The Terminal” and “Bridge of Spies.” But the director says Hanks has never taken on a role quite like this one, in part because Bradlee himself was a unique figure.
“There was a kind of sexiness about Ben Bradlee in the way he led the newsroom and the way he tenaciously would fight for a story — even fight his own publisher or anybody who pushed back on him,” Spielberg said. “There were big dimensions, big colors, that I don’t believe Tom has ever played before. There was a kind of machismo about Bradlee that Tom hasn’t brought to many other characters in his storied career.”
‘Philosophy of less is more’
Over the years, Spielberg and Hanks — whose working relationship goes all the way back to the 1986 comedy “The Money Pit,” which Spielberg produced — have established a deep creative mind-meld.
“We have a similar philosophy of less is more,” Spielberg said, explaining that he will often trim lines of dialogue to get more quickly to the essence of a scene, only to find that Hanks has independently marked the same lines with a red pen in his script.
While collaborating with Spielberg on “The Post” may have been old hat, Hanks had never worked with Streep before, a somewhat surprising turn of events that neither can quite explain.
“Everyone asks why I had never worked with Tom before — it is something that I had always hoped would happen,” Streep said, adding, half-jokingly, “but, as he is 61 and I am 68, in Hollywood that means I would only ever have been appropriately cast as his mother or his grandmother.”
“Meryl is usually in movies about Meryl and Tom is in movies about Tom, and I think what was so great for them is that this was a movie about a relationship,” said “The Post” producer Amy Pascal. “It was about something that movies are never about, which is a platonic love story between a man and a woman and how they work together.”
Hanks has never shied away from expressing his own political views, to the point that over the years he’s been asked numerous times about his interest in running for office, a prospect he dismisses out of hand.
“Yeah, boy, that would be fun, wouldn’t it?” he said, rolling his eyes. “Based on what? That’s what I always come back to. We have people in office who are just good on TV. I don’t think that’s what we’re looking for here.”
Since President Trump’s election, though, Hanks, like many in Hollywood, has felt compelled to become more pointedly outspoken.
“I think everybody has a point where they have to decide to go man the barricade somehow,” he said. “Some issue comes up and you just say, ‘Are you … kidding me?’ Talking about Pocahontas in front of the Navajo code talkers — if you don’t get why that might not fly, there’s no hope for you.”
Asked if he is worried about the nation’s future in these deeply polarized times, Hanks — who consumes endless books of history in his spare time (and recently published his own collection of short stories, “Uncommon Type: Some Stories”) — delivers an impassioned analysis that goes on for more than nine minutes straight.
He references Joseph McCarthy, Father Coughlin, the segregationist Dixiecrats of the 1940s and the protests of the Vietnam era. He touches on World War II Japanese American internment camps, FDR’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court and William Manchester’s sweeping historical tome “The Glory and the Dream.” He rhapsodizes at length about the 1st Amendment — “It’s a doozy, man” — and sings the opening lines of the 1970s “Schoolhouse Rock” song about the Constitution from memory.
The bottom line? Hanks is concerned but not despairing. “We’re certainly in this spiral where disinterest and ignorance is holding more sway than it usually does,” he said. “But the country is very resilient. It rights itself.”
Starring Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep
In area theaters
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