Dark streets, running feet, thriller music. The start of FX’s The Pentagon Papers sets up for intrigue and danger. As a crew of shadowy men shuffle their way toward an office break-in, the screen breaks up repeatedly, showing U.S. troops in Vietnam and bits of typed-out text that layer onto each other so as to become quickly unreadable: “patriotism,” “Saigon,” “national security,” “ammo,” “freedom,” “explosion,” “deceit,” “Vietnam.”
It’s not surprising that “Vietnam” — the soldiers, rain, weapons and choppers — is so instantly recognizable. It is disappointing that so many particulars of “Vietnam” — the nation and people as well its looming presence in U.S. history — are forgotten. The Pentagon Papers recalls these particulars in a specific framework, namely, by emphasizing the heroism of Daniel Ellsberg (played by James Spader in a curly, mod-style wig), the Harvard Law graduate and ex-Marine who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971. While the film doesn’t neglect some of Ellsberg’s vexing traits (say, his self-righteousness), it clearly celebrates his most courageous act.
Ellsberg appears conventionally heroic in the film’s opening sequence, as one of the troops in country. Not to worry: The Pentagon Papers doesn’t rewrite Dan Ellsberg as an action hero, but uses his time as an increasingly distraught “observer” for the Pentagon to accentuate the sense of horror that will, in time, lead him to leak the Papers. Following this glimpse of Young Soldier Dan, Ellsberg appears again, older, somber, and harshly shadowed, filmed in black and white. He sits against a black background and gazes directly into the camera, and describes what it feels like to be caught in quicksand. “It’s too late and you can’t escape,” he says. “That’s how we found ourselves in Vietnam.”
This notable phrasing allows for at least two readings: “we found ourselves” horribly trapped, and also, “we found ourselves” in being so trapped. The latter would, of course, be optimistic, implying that “we” learned something from the Vietnam War and the release of the Pentagon Papers. The film makes this lesson explicit when it ends with footage of the real Ellsberg, interviewed by Walter Cronkite in 1971. He asserts, “I think the lesson is that the people of this country can’t afford to let the President run the country by himself, the foreign affairs any more than domestic affairs, without the help of the Congress, without the help of the public.”
The Pentagon Papers repeatedly underlines, at times subtly and others more plainly, the responsibility of living in a democracy. Dan is its prime example — for what not to do as well as what to do. His initial efforts are straightforward. Young Dan believes in the system, and as the film has it, his initially unquestioning belief leads to disaster. He puts it this way in voiceover: “What I wanted most of all was to serve my country, to be one of the President’s Men.”
Dan’s dedication here provides a deceptively simple timeline for the United States’ descent into what George C. Herring has called “America’s Longest War.” He begins, in 1963, as an eager young policy planner working for the Rand Corporation, under the patient direction of Harry Rowen (Alan Arkin). Part of a group running war games, Dan is keenly aggressive: “Use risk, use threat, use coercion,” he pronounces. “That’s the peculiarity of thermonuclear threats, they make cowards of virtually everyone.” When his game-mates, including Tony Russo (Paul Giamatti), look skeptical, he pushes the point, quoting John Foster Dulles to make his point that “blackmail is good.”
It’s not long before Dan, so clever, moves on. After writing a “provocative” paper entitled “The Political Uses of Madness” (essentially arguing in favor of playing the “mad bomber” to scare your enemies into retreating, much like Captain Kirk used to do in Star Trek), Dan is hired away from Rand by the Assistant Secretary of Defense, John McNaughton (Kenneth Welsh). Dan is elated. His wife, Carol (Maria Del Mar), is not. Still, when she informs him that she and their two children will not be coming with him to DC (she’s tired of feeling abandoned by her workaholic husband), for half a minute, he protests: “I can change.” She knows otherwise.
Next shot: Dan in his office in the Pentagon basement. His voiceover declares that toiling all hours in this cramped space is exactly what he’s always wanted to do. He’s slumped on his desk, passed out, suggesting otherwise. As the film will go on to show, he doesn’t know the half of it: as he slumbers, hundreds and thousands of kids, U.S. and Vietnamese, are, as the contemporary cliché had it, being “turned into cannon fodder.”
It’s only 16 minutes into the film when Dan becomes aware of the extent of his calamity: he notes that certain numbers don’t correspond with others. A lot of certain numbers. For instance, the figures on DBs (dead bodies) supposedly counted in Vietnam are spectacularly untrue, ranging widely from report to report, obviously trumped up to make U.S. actions look successful or enemy actions look fruitless. At first, Dan thinks he’s spotted a series of terrible errors (“The inefficiency was crippling”). But the truth he must eventually realize (and come to believe, for really, the extent of the lies is nearly unbelievable) is that the mistakes are purposeful, both careless and considered, and often malevolent.
Still, Dan wants to believe. So, when McNaughton sends him to Vietnam on a “fact-finding mission,” he goes with a sense of purpose and idealism. He ends up staying in Saigon, as well as the Viet Cong-dominated Mekong Delta, for two years, imagining each day that he will find explanations for the bad accounting, the egregious failures of “pacification” efforts, the sickening loss of life. (In real life, Ellsberg worked in Vietnam with counterinsurgency experts Edward Lansdale and John Paul Vann.) His doubts mount, but Ellsberg holds out hope for the Administration’s strategies, including the Vietnamization program (which sounds suspiciously like the plan for Iraqi insurgents to beat back Saddam Hussein’s forces once the war there is underway, then maintain the peace afterwards, so the U.S. can get out).
On his return to the States, Ellsberg frets, knowing that “our situation was dire and that we had to admit our mistakes and change our strategy.” He also knows this will never happen. He gets hold of the Papers, and as he puts it, “The experience of reading those pages altered my anatomy.” Despite this drama, however, Dan doesn’t act until after the 1969 Tet Offensive, which reveals to many that the War was “unwinnable.” Once he devises a theory for what’s gone wrong, he tells to everyone who will listen (as has the real Ellsberg, who has since gone on to become an anti-nuclear activist, and more recently, a speaker against the Bush Administration’s Iraq policy). As Dan sees it, state leaders tend to develop self-interested domestic politics (that is, reelection) and to design foreign policies to uphold that agenda.
In the film, his ostensible introduction to U.S. fallibility comes (rather ridiculously) in the form of the woman who will become his second wife, an heiress named Patricia Marx (Claire Forlani). On their first encounter at a DC party, she calls out his faulty “domino theory” reasoning regarding The Communists and Vietnam. He’s intrigued but knows he’s right. They meet again in Saigon, where she’s working as a radio reporter (and how lovely she looks as she makes her way through grimy bars and daunting streets!). Their affair is short-lived, however, as she leaves him in a fury when he refuses to act on his knowledge that U.S. policy in Vietnam is failing miserably.
And so, Patricia plays Ellsberg’s conscience, a tedious role at best. She comes equipped with a nameless “boyfriend” who appears on occasion to suggest… well, who knows? That she’s a loose sort of ’70s chick? That she’s drawn against her will to the stubborn Ellsberg? That he (or the film) needs an embodied emblem of his awakening? Rich, beautiful, and apparently unbothered by regular people’s concerns, she swoops in and out of Dan’s life when the script calls for it. She’s absent when he’s dim-witted, returns when he starts questioning his assumptions, leaves again when he won’t face the truth, then comes back again when he’s stolen the Papers and is cooking up a way to use them against the very government he’s been so zealously defending.
Eventually, Dan does deliver the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times‘ Neil Sheehan (Jonas Chernick), determined to “get in the way of the bombing and the killing” despite the risk that he will be charged with treason. Some hell breaks loose. To be accurate, the effect of the Papers’ publication at the time was not so immediate for the War, which went on for another four years. But the fight waged against Ellsberg by the Nixon Administration was momentous, for at least a couple of reasons. One, H.R. Haldeman (James Downing) devised the infamous “plumbers” (to “plug leaks”) in part to bring down Ellsberg (they are the burglars breaking into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office at film’s beginning). Two, the Supreme Court upheld the right of the free press to publish documents that the government would repress.
The film grants this episode suitable weight and screen time. Consisting of over 7,000 pages of top-secret documents, the Papers traced policy, deceit, and cover-ups over 23 years. That is, the Papers revealed the multifarious ways that five administrations lied about what was going on in Vietnam, from Truman and Eisenhower through Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. Ellsberg here calls them “a chronology of our damnation.”
With the Papers as its center, the movie has a minor dilemma, to make reading into a supercharged, life-changing activity. It resorts to the usual montagey business: Dan goes to a vaguely hallucinatory pot party, argues with his buddy Tony, is videotaped by his buddy Tony (so the focus can turn strange), and endures musical interludes where he looks out on the ocean, pensively. These segments, so awkwardly calculated to make visible his emotional and moral turmoil, are mercifully brief. Didn’t anyone making this movie notice that Spader is a strong and subtle performer, and debilitating angst is his forte. He hardly needs such clunky booster images to make the point.
Also adding to the drama are Dan’s occasional bad decisions (these aside from and after his gung-ho early period); for instance, he gets his two barely teenaged kids to help with the xeroxing of the Papers (understandably alarming the ex-wife). In real life, his personal “faults” have been pointed out often enough: not only has he suffered emotionally, he’s also developed a reputation as a difficult personality (noted in the film by Harry, who calls him “an obnoxious, egomaniacal pain in the ass”). And he has never managed a “second act of much significance,” as Michael Kazin puts it in his review of Ellsberg’s Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (Chicago Sun-Times, 1 December 2001).
Recently, Tom Wells’ Wild Man: The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg (2001), endeavors to be the definitive (unauthorized) biography, admiring his courage as a whistleblower, as well as the pain he went through to do the right thing, but also describing Ellsberg’s sexual exploits, failed marriages, and strict upbringing by Christian Scientist parents, not to mention his mother’s early conviction that he would become a great pianist.
The film raises many of these issues (as when Dan tells Patricia, “Everybody always thought I was destined to do something great with my life, to make a mark”). But it doesn’t dwell on them. In The Pentagon Papers, written by Jason Horwitch (Joe and Max) and directed by Rod Holcomb (The Education of Max Bickford, China Beach), Ellsberg is mostly admirable and his enemies are wholly odious, from the faceless Nixon to the creepy John Mitchell (Sean McCann), Haldeman, and Erlichman (Richard Fitzpatrick). Even Senator J. William Fulbright, who spoke against the War for years before Ellsberg found his conscience and his cause, is depicted here as unwilling to do anything “illegal,” the very risk that Ellsberg will, ultimately and valiantly, take.
Though the film doesn’t acknowledge specific sources for its story, FX’s website includes a selected bibliography (under a “Teaching Guide”), which lists Wells’ book, as well as Ellsberg’s Secrets (2002), Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (1989), and McNamara’s mea culpa, In Retrospect (1996), as well as histories of the Vietnam War, like David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972) and Herring’s seminal America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (1986), and David Rudenstine’s The Day the Presses Stopped (1998), about the legal battles over the Pentagon Papers. These sources range from celebratory to derogatory, and include much surrounding material as well.
Whatever criticisms can be made against Ellsberg’s motives, or even the means by which he exposed the decades of lies told by the Pentagon, the Presidency, and members of Congress, the fact is that he did it. That doesn’t let him off long-term moral hooks, and neither does the work by the Court and the press make these institutions guiltless. But their work together in this instance supports Ellsberg’s recurring argument, which he made again in an interview with Fred Branfman last year. The Constitution, he asserts, has provisions to deal with wrongheaded policies toward Vietnam and now, Iraq. The Constitution, he says, is written “to prevent any one man from making the decision on war and peace on his own. Because that gives him the war power that makes him a king. A king in foreign policy is close to what we’ve had in the past 50 years. And it’s what we have now” (Salon, 19 November 2002).
What we have now. As Herring noted in the Los Angeles Times last October, “The publication of Daniel Ellsberg’s memoir, Secrets, at this particular moment is undoubtedly coincidental, but there is an eerie timeliness about it. Rumors of war abound, this time perhaps for a unilateral preemptive full-scale attack unprecedented in American history.” How awful that this timeliness has become even more eerie, and more acute, with FX’s airing of The Pentagon Papers. Maybe this time, history will read differently.