Non-fiction Weekend - The Pentagon Papers

The Pentagon Papers

Steve Taylor-Bryant is slightly obsessed with the story of Daniel Ellsberg. In yet another Ellsberg related article he watches The Pentagon Papers...

His greatest act of patriotism was an act of treason.

If I told you I'd cast a film based on an important historical moment of the twentieth century and it was to be headed by James Spader along with Paul Giamatti, Claire Forlani and Alan Arkin, you would hail me a genius and immediately put me in charge of Hollywood. The thing is this film already exists. Arkin got a prestigious award nod. But it was a television movie. It didn't even get a showing in the United Kingdom and it took some serious Amazon searching for me to find a copy that played over here. I have no idea why, but that's the state of affairs. But get a copy I did and I suggest that anyone even remotely interested in modern history, political lies, or the argument of secrecy and leaking secrets does exactly the same. In fact I'm writing to Hollywood to get a big screen version made as we speak!

The film in question is The Pentagon Papers and tells the story of government analyst Daniel Ellsberg who leaked a 43 volume, 7000 page report on Americas involvement in Vietnam that showed that five presidents and their administrations had lied to congress and the electorate as they chased a win in a war that was unwinnable. For a more in depth account of Ellsberg and what led him to leak the papers and the papers themselves I suggest you read my review here of Ellsberg's memoir, this article is about the film.

The thing that struck me first is how good the casting was. I'd studied this period of history at school so knew the characters involved and had only the day before finished Secrets, the aforementioned memoir, so Daniel Ellsberg, Patricia Marx, Anthony Russo, and Harry Rowen were fresh in mind and Spader, Forlani, Giamatti and Arkin respectively were exactly what I'd imagined when reading the book. It's taken a long time for the audience at large to buy into Spader as a quality act and he has just recently started to show everyone what some of us already knew and that's the fact he is brilliant. If only this film in 2003 got a decent market and marketing push it may not have taken so long. He steals the show as Ellsberg showing every aspect of the man’s emotions as he goes from ex-marine and staunch supporter of the war, analyst for the Deputy Secretary of Defence, to outside researcher with Rand Corp, and anti-war activist. The journey Ellsberg took in his realisations and his frustration at trying to get government to listen to him and eventual exasperation bringing the decision to leak the report to the media was quite a slow one that is maybe a tad rushed in the films 1.32 run time but Spader does a remarkable job showing the kind of man Ellsberg was. Giamatti was as fantastic as Giamatti always is and is always a pleasure to see in anything. Arkin played Harry Rowen, the head of Rand Corp, exactly how I thought he should be and Forlani was a wonderful surprise as she's an actress I've not seen in much and never really stuck out in my mind.

The film suffers from the budgeting constraints of television and the locations look like the Canadian locations used by every TV show and the runtime is restricting for such a story however director Rod Holcomb does an admiral job in allowing Jason Horwitch's script and his wonderful cast to more than make up for a lack of quality in other areas. I'd have preferred some more scenes involving the politicians and the president/s but if you can get a copy then this is a must watch.

Image - IMDb.