EXCLUSIVE: Amy Pascal’s Pascal Pictures won an auction for The Post. The spec script by Liz Hannah frames a feature film about the Washington Post’s role in exposing the Pentagon Papers in 1971, and how the Post’s editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Kay Graham challenged the federal government over their right to publish them. Pascal and her lieutenant Rachel O’Connor moved quickly after their exec Ben Lusthaus brought in the project and Pascal used her discretionary fund to make the buy. She will produce it. O’Connor will be executive producer along with Star Thrower Entertainment’s Tim and Trevor White, who developed the script along with their exec Allan Mandelbaum.
Hannah, an AFI grad who worked in development before turning to write full time, made her first spec deal with this. She’s repped by Echo Lake Entertainment’s Brittany Kahan and Graciella Sanchez, and Jeff Hynick at Jackoway Tyerman.
In an age where rampant web leaks of emails has left it difficult to figure out whether they are fair game or privacy invasion, the Pentagon Papers is the whistleblower equivalent of WWII, in how soldiers felt they were on the side of the angels fighting it. The classified study about the Vietnam War was commissioned by the Defense Department and revealed unreported facts about a secret dramatic escalation of troops and bombings in what was appearing to be an unwinnable war. Military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, pro-war when he started working on the study at the RAND Corporation, became convinced it should be absorbed to set future policy, and leaked the classified information to the New York Times. That paper published a scathing first installment that charged the Johnson administration had systematically lied to the public and to Congress about Vietnam.
When the incumbent Nixon administration Attorney General John Mitchell and Nixon failed to get the paper to stop, they got a federal court injunction forcing the Times to cease after three installments. The Washington Post grabbed the baton (Ellsberg gave the study to Bradlee) and published more revelations from the 47-volume study. Other papers including the Boston Globe jumped in, and Alaska U.S. Senator Mike Gravel read highlights aloud in a Senate subcommittee hearing. The floodgates had opened, and together the New York Times and Washington Post appealed to the Supreme Court on First Amendment grounds. The justices ruled 6-3 that the government failed to prove a harm to national security and that publication was justified by the First Amendment. Ellsberg was arrested and charged with conspiracy, espionage and theft of government property.
Unlike Edward Snowden, who fled to Russia, Ellsberg faced the music and said he was willing to go to jail if it would stop an unjust war, and many feel the leaks did just that. Charges against him were eventually dropped when the Watergate scandal revealed that staffers at the Nixon White House were involved in unlawful efforts to discredit him by burglarizing the office of his psychiatrist.