On FX: The Pentagon Papers

A Review by Debra Conway
JFK Lancer Independent News Exchange, 3-8-03

"The Pentagon Papers is the true story of Daniel Ellsberg,
a high-ranking Pentagon official whose greatest act of Patriotism was an act of Treason."


Whatever the producers at FX are drinking, the other television channels should add it to their water coolers immediately. In a brave, made-for-TV movie (premiering Sunday at 8 p.m. on FX) the story of Daniel Ellsberg is told. Ellsberg showed the lies of war and his act of civil disobedience contributed greatly towards ending the Nixon house of cards and our involvement in Vietnam. Warning: While viewing this movie, it is impossible to avoid the stark comparison with the events leading up to the coming war with Iraq.

In an authoritative and thoughtful portrayal by James Spader(Stargate, Sex,Lies and Video Tape), Ellsberg is shown, in an "only Nixon could go to China" way, to be the right person in the right time. The successful reflective mood of this movie comes from a series of remembrances by Ellsberg on his release of the top secret "Pentagon Papers," a secret study ordered by Secretary of Defense McNamara on the history of the war in Vietnam. If old enough to remember, we know that this important study was printed in the New York Times and other papers in 1971, in defiance of President Nixon and after a Supreme Court battle. We may not know how the Papers came to be offered to the Times and to a greater part, why. This movie brings us back to those days of war and tells the reasons why.

We first see Ellsberg in 1964 as a researcher at the Rand Corporation, an important think-tank in California, where he had top secret access and worked with military documents, particularly to explore dangerous patterns in governmental decision making. Ellsberg, then an avid hawk on Vietnam, is shown to be confident, outspoken, and somewhat tactless with the presentation of his views. Expected from someone with Ellsberg's drive, he is shown to be a dutiful over-achiever at the office, while neglectful at home, providing one of the few moments of humor in the movie when later we see his two children sit at a table cutting "Top Secret" from the tops of the copied documents.

Known for his work at Rand, in the late summer of 1964, Ellsberg gets a job offer from the Pentagon to work as special assistant to John T. McNaughton, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. McNaughton, worked under McNamara, who was managing the war for President Johnson and was the principal assistant on Vietnam.

Leaving his family behind (his wife refused to follow him to Washington), he begins the process of awakening. After the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the escalation of the United States involvement in the war, the movie shows Ellsberg as he studies the reports from the military on body counts. Established as the method to present the status of our progress, Ellsberg, no bureaucrat, begins to see discrepancies in the reports realizing that these counts give no accurate picture of our success or failure, leading him to request to go to Vietnam personally.

Assigned to the field with Ed Lansdale's division, by 1965, Ellsberg's stoicism changes to despair but he is still not convinced the war cannot be won. While in Vietnam, Ellsberg is reunited with a fellow Rand researcher, Paul Russo, terribly miscast with clownish actor Paul Giamatti, who later in the movie, while trying very hard to become a hippie, leads to the only weak scenes in the program. He is also reunited with the woman who will become his future wife, Patricia Marx, intelligently portrayed by Claire Forlani.
Finally, returning to Washington, Ellsberg finds that his boss has been killed in a plane crash so he goes back to Rand in California where he asks to review McNamara's 47 volume study on Vietnam and writes a White Paper admitting US mistakes and how we must change our strategy.

The movie gains its most impact, using the voice of Spader as Ellsberg, despondent over reading the Pentagon Papers, comes to the realization that the failure in Vietnam is the failure of four consecutive presidents: "it wasn't one man, it was the presidential office itself," Ellsberg laments:

  • Truman ignored letter after letter from Ho Chi Min asking for help. He then financed the French with arms and Congress knew nothing.
  • Eisenhower agreed to split Vietnam in two; helped to install a hopelessly corrupt government; helped rig elections to support it and then sent in the first US advisors to support it. Congress is still in the dark.
  • Kennedy made plans for a large-scale involvement as early as 1961, authorized the overthrow of Diem's regime and sat by as Diem was assassinated in the streets of Saigon.
  • LBJ used the attack in Gulf of Tonkin (which according to the study never even took place) as an excuse to get us into war without a formal declaration from Congress.

Though historians (and this reviewer see here) may disagree with the summary presented above, the study proved one thing, that these presidents had the ability to wage war without the approval of Congress.

Greatly affected, Ellsberg visits his friend Russo who lives by the ocean and begins to see a physiatrist, as the experience of reading the volumes burns away his allegiance. The weakest scenes in the movie are with beaded extras and hippy era themed music, Ellsberg writes more eloquently about this time in his book,

"I lay in bed and thought: This is the system that I have been working for, the system I have been a part of. It's a system that lies automatically, at every level from bottom to top--from sergeant to commander in chief--to conceal murder."

Ellsberg, with help from Russo, begins to copy the Pentagon Papers, sneaking them out at night in his briefcase. His unsuccessful search to find an ally in Congress coincides with his exposure to peace activists who are ready and willing to go to jail over their refusal to enter the draft or serve in Vietnam. People he had no fellowship with before showed Ellsberg that he must also break the law to get the papers released, "to get in the way of the bombing and killing."

Spader soulfully and masterfully takes the viewer with him as Ellsberg decides he must break the law. His decision to ruin his career, risk imprisonment, leave his wife and children is eloquently expressed in scene after scene. He must release this study. This is crucial to understand because Daniel Ellsberg was the one man supremely qualified to liberate this top secret study without being cast as a traitor, though he did not realize that at the time.

Finally, he calls the New York Times who ultimately agrees to publish the papers. Nixon's White House orders the Plumbers to raid Ellsberg's physiatrist's office. Next, the Watergate scandal explodes. Ellsberg is vindicated. And as they say, the rest is history---history that is eerily similar to current events. Have the US presidents learned the lessons of Vietnam? And how do we measure military victory?
This movie successfully shows us that we, the people, must be informed if we want to be involved in the debate between peace and war. This writer hopes there is another Daniel Ellsberg out there today.

All graphics and photos property of FX © 2003 The Pentagon Papers

Text © 2003 JFK Lancer, Inc.



FX Movie: Pentagon Papers Official Site

ANTHONY RUSSO - Paul Giamatti
PATRICIA MARX - Claire Forlani
HARRY ROWEN - Alan Arkin


  • 1969, delivers copies to the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
  • June 13, 1971, Pentagon Papers published in New York Times
  • June 28, 1971, Ellsberg is arrested after turning himself in.

    Watergate meets the Pentagon Papers trial:
  • April 27, 1973, Memo turned over to defense from the Justice Dept. revealed that Liddy and Hunt burglarized the offices of a psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg to obtain files relating to Ellsberg.
  • May 11, 1973, Case against Ellsberg dismissed.

Recommended Reading:

  • Read "Secrets" by Daniel Ellsberg / Ellsberg site;
  • "The Pentagon Papers"
    National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book Number 48
    Posted on Tuesday, 5 June 2001
    UPDATED 29 JUNE 2001 -
    The Secret Briefs and the Secret Evidence
    Edited by Thomas S. Blanton

    Compiled by John Prados, Eddie Meadows, William Burr, and Michael Evans
  • H.R. Haldeman, The Haldeman Diaries (New York: Berkeley Books, 1995)
  • Stanley Kutler's Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes (New York: Touchstone, 1997)
  • "Death of A Generation, How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War" by Howard Jones.

Background, from "Secrets" by Daniel Ellsberg:

Not in the movie, but remembered by this: Ellsberg warns then Presidential Advisor Henry Kissinger:

"Henry, there's something I would like to tell you something I wish I had been told years ago. You've been a consultant for a long time, and you've dealt a great deal with top secret information. But you're about to receive a whole slew of special clearances that are higher than top secret. First, you'll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all --- suddenly available to you.

But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents had and others had and you didn't, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn't even guess. In particular, you'll feel like a fool and that will last for about two weeks.

Then after becoming used to what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information, you'll be aware only of the fact that other people don't and that all those other people are fools. Over a two or three years, you'll eventually become aware of the limitations of this information.

There is a great deal it doesn't tell you, it's often inaccurate, and it can lead you astray just as much as the New York Times can.

In the meantime it will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn't have these clearances. Because you'll be thinking as you listen to them: 'What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know?' And that mental exercise is so tormenting that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. Then the danger is, you'll become something like a moron. You'll be incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours."