Paramount // 2003 // 92 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // March 16th, 2004
His greatest act of patriotism was an act of treason.
When combined, the tags "made-for-television" and "based on a true story" usually guarantee one is about to experience a fetid cinematic turd. Veteran TV director Rod Holcomb's (Hill Street Blues, China Beach, ER) The Pentagon Papers is the exception that proves the rule. Made for the FX cable channel, the film details the pivotal role played by Daniel Ellsberg (James Spader, sex, lies, and videotape, Crash, Secretary) in the history of the Vietnam War. The film begins in 1963 as Ellsberg is in a Rand Corporation think-tank, participating in the war games they sponsor. Initially, Ellsberg is a strong advocate of the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, and his paper, "Political Uses of Madness," scores him a Pentagon job with a GS-18 security clearance (the highest possible for a civilian), reporting directly to Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton. In short order, Ellsberg notices wildly contradictory intelligence information regarding both U.S. and Vietnamese casualties. In 1965, he has himself assigned to a fact-finding mission in Hau Nghia Province, where he goes into "pacified" areas to visually assess casualties. The experience leaves him doubting his previous optimism regarding the war.
After Assistant Secretary McNaughton's death in a freak airplane crash, Ellsberg is cut loose and returns to the Rand Corporation. There, he participates in the composition of part of a history, commissioned by the Pentagon, of America's involvement in Southeast Asia. When he gains access to the entire 7,000-page document, Ellsberg discovers an ongoing pattern of lying and double-dealing perpetrated by four consecutive White Houses, beginning with the Truman administration. Supported by his wife, socialite Patricia Marx (Claire Forlani, Meet Joe Black, The Medallion), and Rand Corporation social scientist-turned-radical, Tony Russo (Paul Giamatti, American Splendor), Ellsberg decides to leak the Pentagon papers to the New York Times. The story breaks in 1971, and the Constitutional ramifications reach all the way to the Supreme Court when the Nixon administration stops the Times' presses in the name of national security. FBI agents hunt for Ellsberg even as the leak further erodes the American people's support for the war, and advances the coming military withdrawal.
Though unequivocal about the moral rightness of Ellsberg's leak -- despite its likely crossing the legal line (by Ellsberg's own admission) into treason -- The Pentagon Papers is fascinating because of its ambivalence regarding its hero's character and motives. As played by Spader, Ellsberg is arrogant and self-righteous to a fault, no matter which side of the war he's on. The picture purposely muddies the degree to which the leak was motivated by Ellsberg's conviction that it was the right thing to do for the country, and by his pathological need to be right whatever the fallout. Our sympathy for his struggles to get intransigent government bureaucracies to take meaningful action on behalf of the American people, as well as the dangers he faces from a criminally out-of-control Nixon administration, is undermined by Ellsberg's acts of narcissism, as when he recklessly compromises his own children by having them snip the "top secret" designation from the bottoms of the pages of photocopies he's preparing to hand over to the Times. The movie also makes explicit the irony of Ellsberg's rants about the supremacy of truth regardless of the consequences, when weighed against his own willingness to lie to both the FBI and his superiors in order to achieve his ends. Isn't the idea of lying on behalf of a greater good (or the hope thereof) the ethical violation by the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations that the Pentagon report revealed? Ellsberg's lies to Harry Rowen (Alan Arkin, Catch-22), his superior at Rand, are particularly damning, because they represent a betrayal of friendship that damages the life and career of an innocent man.
This is not to say the film depicts Ellsberg as a villain. It simply emphasizes the difficulties of acting with moral and ethical clarity in a complex system of power in which individual agency is compromised in the grind of politics' consensus decision-making. The real Daniel Ellsberg wasn't involved in the making of the film, but has said that, while individual scenes and dialogue are entirely fabricated, the movie captures the gist of the story quite accurately. Simply put, Ellsberg's journey of character across the telefilm's 92 minutes mirrors the American people's through the long Vietnam war: idealistic in the beginning about protecting the South Vietnamese and stalling Soviet imperialism, he's soon faced with the harsh realities of the implacable Viet Cong, and the logistical and moral toll of trying to win a colonial war. From beginning to end, Ellsberg is in a constant state of being simultaneously right and wrong, both hero and villain. That The Pentagon Papers succeeds in capturing and expressing that paradox is its greatest achievement.
Paramount brings The Pentagon Papers to DVD in a barebones edition that sports a strong full screen transfer in keeping with its broadcast presentation. Colors are strong and accurate, and the picture is stable, showing no digital artifacts and minimal haloing from edge enhancement. The image provides sharp, textured detail. The Dolby Stereo audio track is so rich and clear, it makes one wish for a 5.1 treatment. The couple of battle scenes in Vietnam especially beg for a more lush and dynamic presentation.
No subtitles are provided, and there isn't a single extra on the disc.
With an MSRP of $24.95, the disc is grossly overpriced, but the movie itself is worth checking out. Give it a rent.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R