EXCLUSIVE: MGM prevailed in an auction for the rights to We’re The Only Plane In The Sky, a lengthy Politico Magazine story by Garrett M. Graff that tells the real-time story of how the U.S. government handled the evacuation of President George W. Bush from a classroom of children in Sarasota, FL after learning that terrorists had flown planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. The article, covering one of the most harrowing days a sitting U.S. president has ever experienced, is presented in oral history form as the president’s staff, military men and bodyguards — and the journalists covering him, 65 in total — spent eight hours alone in U.S. airspace, not knowing if the president’s plane might be next to be attacked, or how it might happen.
It presents the possibility for a non-political movie that could play out like Apollo 13, a thriller that builds tension even though the outcome is part of history, by showing the obstacles facing decision makers, and how they were overcome in real time.
What is surprising in this age of sophisticated communication and iPhones, is how unsophisticated the communications technology was in 2001. While the president pushed to be flown right back to the White House, his team and the Secret Service felt it was too dangerous. It was decided that the president was safest flying covertly, 40,000 feet in the air, particularly after the World Trade Center attack was followed by a passenger jet flying into the Pentagon. Another plane, United 93, had crash-landed in a field in Pennsylvania. While the nation was glued to TV sets and getting real-time updates on the attacks, Air Force One was essentially flying blind. Initially, the president’s advisors were unable to gather much intelligence at all: the plane relied on communications using the same frequencies that were oversubscribed by the air traffic controllers who were desperately trying to account for and land all of the passenger planes in the air at that moment, unsure which might be under the control of terrorists. The president, like everybody else on the plane, was unable to contact his family. While the president and his advisors suspected Osama bin Laden was behind the sinister plot, the president and his staff had to make decisions and take action with limited communications with Bush’s closest advisors, and with world leaders.
The article ends with President George W. Bush assessing the burning shell of the Pentagon and saying, “The mightiest building in the world is on fire. This is the face of war in the 21st century.” Then, there is a description of President Barack Obama, making the very first call after confirming the information that Osama bin Laden had been killed by Navy SEALs. That call was to his predecessor, Bush.
MGM exec veep Adam Rosenberg brought in the article and president Jon Glickman pursued it aggressively as the studio continues to stress development of original content in hopes of another Me Before You, the adaptation of the Jojo Moyes bestseller that grossed more than $200 million worldwide.
Graff is the former editor of Politico and before that Washingtonian Magazine, and was the first blogger invited to cover a White House press briefing. His books include The First Campaign: Globalization, The Web, And The Race For The White House, and The Threat Matrix: The FBI At War In The Age Of Global Terror. UTA reps him and made the deal.