By Mike Fleming Jr.
A timely film about the vital role of the press in keeping government honest is coming together with a powerhouse cast. Steven Spielberg just said yes to direct Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in The Post, the spec script by Liz Hannah bought last fall by Amy Pascal’s Pascal Pictures. The deals are being negotiated. The film is a drama 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.
The film will be co-financed by Fox and Amblin Entertainment. Fox will handle domestic distribution; international will be Amblin, through its output deals with Universal, eOne, Reliance and others. With the Fox deal, Spielberg reunites with chairman/CEO Stacey Snider, his longtime partner at DreamWorks. This marks the fifth pairing of Spielberg with Hanks, after Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If you Can, The Terminal and Bridge of Spies. Streep voiced the blue fairy for Spielberg in A.I., and she is narrating the Netflix documentary Five Came Back. Spielberg is exec producing that film, and he also is one of the interview subjects in the film about WWII’s impact on cinema.
Pascal will produce with Spielberg, and Kristie Macosko Krieger (Bridge of Spies). Rachel O’Connor will be executive producer along with Star Thrower Entertainment’s Tim and Trevor White, and Adam Somner. They’ll fit this into Spielberg’s busy schedule soonest. Among others, he has been casting The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, which will star Mark Rylance and Oscar Isaac. Spielberg is in post-production on Ready Player One.
The idea is for Sully star Hanks to play Bradlee, the editor who would figure in the movie classic All The President’s Men. Streep, coming off an Oscar nom for Florence Foster Jenkins, would play Graham.
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 whistle blower 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. While Ellsberg said he was willing to go to jail to stop an unjust war, 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.