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
a high-ranking Pentagon official whose greatest act of Patriotism
was an act of Treason."
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
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
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
- 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
"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
All graphics and photos property of FX © 2003 The Pentagon
Text © 2003 JFK Lancer, Inc.
FX Movie: Pentagon Papers Official
DANIEL ELSBERG - James Spader
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
- Read "Secrets" by Daniel Ellsberg / Ellsberg
- "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
- 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)
of A Generation, How the Assassinations
of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War" by Howard Jones.
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