A Prism of Absolute Truth: Actor Bruce Greenwood Discusses ‘The Post,’ Spielberg, & History as a Teachable Moment

In Steven Spielberg’s The Post, Meryl Streep, playing Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, and Tom Hanks, as its legendary editor Ben Bradlee, race to catch up with The New York Times to publish a classified account of the U.S. Government’s decades-long involvement in Southeast Asia. The Post received raves during its pre-Christmas limited opening.

In the film, veteran actor Bruce Greenwood plays the key role of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who served under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. As the chief architect of the United States’ military involvement in the Vietnam War, McNamara was at the center of one of the most turbulent periods in the country’s history. As the strategies that he helped employ continued to prove futile, he initiated a secret investigation of the government’s role in the war—an investigation that would go on to become known as the Pentagon Papers after their publication.

I recently had the chance to speak with Greenwood on the phone about his approach to portraying McNamara and what led to his interest in working on the film.

What’s important for us to know about the character you’re playing, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the impact of his role in the Vietnam War, and the commission of the Pentagon Papers?

In a strange way, he had the foresight to realize that hindsight might give perspective to the hundred years of occupation in Indochina, despite the fact that he commissioned the report in secret because he was concerned that [President Lyndon] Johnson would shut it down when he discovered it. The study wasn’t completed until after he’d left and become the president of the World Bank, and that happened because he and Johnson parted ways on how to continue to prosecute the war. One of the things I’m given to understand that maybe isn’t widely known is that McNamara believed, for a long time, the only way to draw the North [Vietnamese] to the table was through force, even though he knew the war militarily was unwinnable. His belief that the only way to find a resolution was going to be through a negotiated agreement ran parallel to the conviction that they wouldn’t be willing to talk unless they were forced to militarily. That was a profound misconception that cost millions of lives. The study revealed that the occupation of Indochina for millennia had been repelled by this warrior culture that existed in Vietnam, that they would eternally resist occupation, and that there was nothing in the spirit or the psyche of the people, given their history, that would allow them to submit. The United States, France, and Japan didn’t understand that, and they possibly didn’t understand because they hadn’t done any homework at all.

So, McNamara commissions this study and it goes on in secret. Dozens upon dozens of highly qualified people contribute, revealing that if they had approached the challenge of what was apparently happening in Indochina with sufficient knowledge, the war would have been completely unnecessary. In fact, [former Prime Minister of Vietnam] Ho Chi Minh approached Woodrow Wilson at the end of the First World War looking for something that would be of mutual benefit, and he was rebuffed. The same thing [happened] with Truman after the Second World War. When Truman was rebuilding Europe, Ho Chi Minh invited him to invest in Vietnam, and he was ignored. There were all these opportunities that the United States missed. McNamara became this pivotal figure in that he was the guy, for a long period, supporting the use of force. In fact, it was referred to as “McNamara’s War,” and at that time he didn’t resist that label—in fact, he embraced it. It wasn’t until much later, as you see in The Fog of War and in his writings, that he realized he’d been tragically mistaken and myopic and full of this sort of ignorance that evolves in Western hubris—that we can dominate through sheer force.

It doesn’t always work out that way.

No, it universally never works out that way.

Did McNamara’s eventual regret become a facet of the character you were able to explore in this film?

Well, during this period, 1971, he’d already moved to the World Bank and he had stopped believing that the use of force in the war was going to lead to any kind of resolution. He was still in that place of defending prior decisions. We illustrate in this movie that he was still clinging to those convictions publicly, but they were beginning to crumble.

It was more of an internal conflict for him at that point.

Yeah, and hopefully you’ll see that embodied in the desperation with which he pushes back. You’ll hopefully be given to realize that he’s protesting too much.

Can you describe the challenge of portraying a real-life figure integral to such an important part of relatively recent history?

Well, what I tell myself is that if you think of any historical figure or real person that you’re playing, this person is a kaleidoscope of contradictions and complications. If I can get a couple of shapes and colors that represent part of that kaleidoscope, I’ll consider myself lucky. I don’t think there’s any way in a movie—possibly in a novel you can—but it’s very unlikely in a movie that you’re going to be able to divine a whole person. That’s me, anyway. (Laughs) I think it’s probably different with someone like Meryl [Streep]. For example, I was talking to [former Washington Post reporter] Carl Bernstein on opening night in D.C., and—completely unsolicited, because he knew Kay Graham—he said watching Meryl Streep was like being in a room with Kay Graham. Some people just have that transformative qualify that somehow makes you believe you’re living and breathing right along with that character. Meryl is one of those people.

 Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Photo by Niko Tavernise

Did you get to work with her a lot during the shoot?

I did, and it was a couple of the most exciting days of my professional life.

What kind of research helped you prepare for this film in particular?

I did a lot of reading and watched a lot of film. I talked with Steven [Spielberg], of course, and with [screenwriters] Josh [Singer] and Liz Hannah. I didn’t get the opportunity to speak with Daniel Ellsberg [the government analyst who released the Pentagon Papers] until after the movie was over, but he and I talked for quite a while recently.

One of my personal favorite roles of yours was John F. Kennedy in Thirteen Days. Did the experience of bringing another important part of history to the screen help prepare you for The Post?

I suppose it prepared me in that I realized the more research you do, and the more reading you do, the better off you are. I read voluminous quantities about the Cuban Missile Crisis and amassed an absurd library about that period. Everything I read gave me perspective. You can hear a story told 10 times, but we all know history is, to some degree, subjective. Everyone who tells the story tells it slightly differently. When you read one account, you think “That’s the account, that’s what happened.” If you read two accounts, you say, “Oh, I see. Well, maybe that’s what happened.” If you read 10 accounts, you go, “Okay. Now I can write the eleventh account.” Because it’s all subjective. Ultimately, there is a truth there, but who do you rely on to tell you the absolute truth? We all see it through the prism of our point of view.

With multiple accounts, the internal and external debates open up. There’s a point when you realize everyone may not be telling the whole truth.

Yeah, one account: no room for debate. Two accounts: room for thought. Ten accounts: let’s wade in. But what’s kind of ironic is the more you read, the less you really know. You can make that argument, too. Although, in terms of research to play a character, the more you read then probably the better off you are. But, sometimes, you might read one account that gives you a strong physical idea of who the guy or the woman is, and if you just left it at that you might have created something really dynamic, as opposed to reading a bunch of accounts and watering it all down because you can’t tell what’s real and what’s not.

It’s a reflection of what’s going on in the world right now. You can read different versions of the same story on the same day.

Boy, can you ever. You’ve got to work relatively hard to find the truth. The way we used to get the news in the old days was from three sources and they’d be essentially the same. They might lean way or another, but it’s much harder to get through the noise now. People just throw up their hands and say, “Well, if I’m going to see another fifty dollars in my paycheck this month, I’m going to say to myself that the tax plan is a good idea.”

Cultural paralysis.

Well, it’s something that we’ve brought on ourselves with fifty years of drawing money out of our educational system. We’ve spent a lot of time and energy under-educating the public. There’s a consequence: we’re somewhat easier to control. But, here we are with this movie, at a time we’re reminded that democracy is a very fragile thing. It’s a bubble in a stream, and it doesn’t take much to change its direction or puncture it completely. We think we’ve created this muscular, dynamic thing we call democracy that’s going to keep us all free and honest, but it’s not that easy. It’s much more delicate and fragile than I think any of us want to believe. This movie is a potent reminder. If you take Watergate, for example, or the Pentagon Papers as the canaries in the coal mine, you’d think, “Well, it just takes one canary.” We realize there’s a problem. You go in and fix it. You clear out the air and get rid of the stuff that’s going to destroy whatever it is you believe in. Once you’ve cleared the air, that’s it. But the fact is that the mine continues to fill with toxin. Society doesn’t just have to use one canary. This is one of those times when the canary is letting us know that it’s time to wake up before we all go up in flames.

Was the timeliness of The Post part of your decision to be in the movie?

 Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Photo by Niko Tavernise

Well, it all came together in this incredibly rare opportunity to work with somebody like Steven Spielberg, Meryl, Tom Hanks, Josh and Liz, and [cinematographer] Janusz Kamiński on a movie that is about something for which I care deeply. What’s so boldly apparent when you watch the film is that, if ever a film like this was going to be made, now is the time. We’re at this critical juncture in our nation’s history where freedom of the press is not just under attack, it’s suffering from this very insidious, systemic leeching of confidence. It’s not as simple as what Nixon wanted to do by just shutting down the papers. It’s much more insidious, to where hard news is being discredited as fake and anything that runs counter to the narrative of the administration becomes a target for ridicule by the administration and by the publications and media that are living on that side of the partisan divide.

To your point, it seemed like a perfect storm of elements coming together when this movie went into production.

Yeah, I think Steven was planning to work on another movie and this came up. Amy Pascal had found it, took it to Steven, he read it and instantly said “I must do this and I must do it now.” It’s a testament to his passion about this subject that it came together so quickly, and to the passion of all the players who contributed to it gelling very, very quickly. He’s the rare filmmaker who, in midstride, can change direction and say, “I’m doing another movie. Gotta do it right now. Follow me,” and have everybody come along with him.

What is it like working with Steven Spielberg?

One of my favorite experiences ever. He’s really in tune with what you’re trying to do, what you’re actually doing, and bridging the gap between the two. The way he directs, and the way he directed me, was with such a light touch and with a phrase here or a phrase there that would help lean me in one direction or another. He’s very supportive. You just watch him create on his feet. There was something that I couldn’t articulate, something in the back of my mind—a tone, a feel, or something I couldn’t quite get a grasp on. He would set up a shot, say a couple of words, and suddenly I’d go, “Oh yeah, that’s what I think I thought!” (Laughs) Or, conversely, “Oh my goodness, that’s what it was about. Okay, I get it now!” So, it was tremendously exciting and a rare privilege for me.

Ironically, in HBO’s recent Spielberg documentary, he spoke about getting nervous before he’s about to shoot a scene, and that the ideas start to come when that nervousness turns to panic. Was there a situation you can recall when he may have taken in your ideas on something?

Well if that’s true, it was completely invisible to me. That’s not to say he doesn’t respond to ideas, because he does, of course. He’s been doing this so long and he’s so intuitive that what “no idea” means to him probably doesn’t mean the same thing to you and I. If you and I walk up and say, “we have no idea,” we’d stand there like a traffic cop with a hat on backwards. People would be walking in all kinds of directions. He’d walk in there looking like a traffic cop, and suddenly out comes the baton and the symphony starts to play. (Laughs) I can’t speak to the idea that he might have no idea what to do. I don’t know how to respond to that! But working with him is a rare treat, and I recommend it – highly. (Laughs)

What’s next on the horizon for you?

I’m doing a television series for Fox right now called The Resident. That comes out in January. It’s about the collision of medicine and money, and the fact that care and commerce are not easy bedfellows. Anyone who’s ever gone to the hospital knows all too well that things can go wrong and things can drop between the cracks. But, at the same time, it’s a business and things often get dropped between the cracks on purpose because it saves a dollar here and a dollar there. I’ve also got an independent movie called Sorry for Your Loss that’s coming up.

I’m something of a fan, and I loved your take on the character, so I have to ask: is there any chance of your Christopher Pike returning to the Star Trek movies?

I wish! I’d give anything for a little bit of Khan’s blood to get back into that one. But I don’t think that’s in my future, unfortunately.

Final question: If you had to pick one aspect that you love most about watching movies, or working on movies, or just going to the movies, what would it be?

The community.

A condensed version of this interview originally appeared as the January 2018 cover story in Boxoffice Magazine.

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The Post is now in theaters nationwide.

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