My Thoughts on 'The Pentagon Papers' Movie
by Daniel Ellsberg
March 11, 2003

Tonight (Sunday March 9th), the made-for-TV movie "The Pentagon Papers," starring James Spader as Daniel Ellsberg and Claire Forlani as Patricia Ellsberg, premieres on the FX cable TV station, 8 PM Eastern/Pacific. The movie is not based on "Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers," (the script was written before "Secrets" came out), and oddly, FX never contacted Dan about the film or consulted him in any way. (The only contact, an impersonal one, was to send Ellsberg.Net – along with hundreds of other websites – a mass email after the film was made, asking that we place their banner ad on the site, in exchange for a link from theirs, which we did). Someone with access to the film, who thought Dan should be able to see the film that portrays him before it airs, "leaked" Dan an advance copy of the film (FX never gave it to him and was dismayed he had seen it before tonight). One would think, with so little interest in contacting Dan or using him as a source for the movie, that the film would be negative. Surprisingly, it is a respectful (though unnecessarily fictionalized) and sympathetic portrayal, with a timely and important underlying message. Here are some of Dan's thoughts on the film:

"Every bit of dialogue is completely fictional (with the exception of a dozen lines or so, mainly in my interview with Cronkite), nothing happened very closely to the way it is portrayed, and there are errors in almost every minute of the film. In fact, the script often has me saying things that I not only didn't say, but I never would have said; in many cases they are the opposite of what I believed. The same is true for most of the dialogue associated with other named characters; they obviously weren't consulted any more than I was. You could say that everything is wrong, in some degree: and yet, the overall story is true to the underlying feeling of the events.

"They have made a good movie, with an important message – in favor of whistleblowing – that I would endorse; and the timeliness of the message, undoubtedly by accident, is uncanny. The inaccuracies of the script are somewhat frustrating to me but they won't be noticed by many others, and every other aspect of the production is unusually well-done: the casting and acting, direction and editing, the photography. It was fun for Patricia and me to watch it together; we relived the start of our romance. As in the rest of script, the circumstances are all wrong, but James Spader and Claire Forlani show the electricity of our attraction, and Forlani conveys "behind her eyes" – as one reviewer put it – Patricia's intelligence as well as her beauty. We found it a gripping film, and I think others will too: one that is true to the spirit and feeling of the events, if not the letter.

"There's a chance this film could encourage more whistleblowers, which is what makes it so timely right now. It shows that it's possible for someone with the background and values that I shared with many current officials to change perspective and to decide to tell the truth to those outside the Executive branch, and it shows that in unforeseeable ways that can be effective. It shows that the personal costs of doing this can be worthwhile, in terms of the possibility of saving lives.

"I've been using every opportunity in the last five months to convey a message to current officials who know – as I did in 1964-65 – that the president, and their bosses, are lying us into a wrongful, reckless, unnecessary war. The message, which I think is implicit in this movie, is that they should consider doing right now, before the bombs are falling, what I wish I had done at a comparable point, in the months before the onset of the Rolling Thunder bombing: going to Congress and the press with documents that undercut official lies. There is still time to avert this war with sufficiently comprehensive truth-telling, though there's only a week or two left before the bombing may begin. That's why I'm particularly happy this film is coming out at this moment. If one individual in Washington gets that message by seeing this movie, and unloads a file-drawer of revelatory current documents to the press and Congress, it could make a great difference. A war's worth of lives is at stake."

"The Pentagon Papers" on FX

(If you missed Sunday the 9th, it will be playing five or six more times throughout the month. Check out or FX's page for the movie, for listings of future showings this month.)

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Daniel Ellsberg worked on the Top Secret McNamara study of U.S. Decision-making in Vietnam, 1945-68, which later came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. In 1970, he leaked the study to Congress, and in 1971, to the press. Since the end of the Vietnam War he has been a lecturer, writer and activist on the dangers of the nuclear era and unlawful interventions.

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