The Pentagon Papers (2003)  TV




Director:  Rod Holcomb.

Starring:  James Spader (Daniel Ellsberg), Claire Forlani (Patricia Marx), Paul Giamatti (Anthony Russo), Alan Arkin (Harry Rowen), Kenneth Welsh (John McNaughon), Maria del Mar (Carol Ellsberg), Sean McCann (John Mitchell), James Downing (H.R. Haldeman), Richard Fitzpatrick (John Ehrlichman), Jonas Chernick (Neil Sheehan), Amy Price-Francis (Jan Butler), Aaron Ashmore (Randy Kehler), George R. Robertson (Senator Fulbright), Robert Seeliger (FBI Agent), Roland Rothchild (FBI Agent).

negative report written by the Pentagon on the War in Vietnam released in parts to the public


Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film. 

Three guys break into an office, probably of Ellsberg's psychiatrist.

1963.  Dr. Daniel Ellsberg complains about the United States being too soft on communism.  He works for the Rand Corporation and helps run possible war games for the Pentagon.   He criticizes his colleagues for not using enough of the factors of coercion and risk.  Harry Rowen, Ellsberg's boss, talks with him and says that he pissed everybody off and he knows how much Ellsberg likes that. 

Ellsberg has dreamed of becoming one of the president's men.  His whole life has been directed to that goal.  This was why he became an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps and wrote his dissertation for the Ph. d.  His boss talks to him again, this time about his recent writing:  "The Political Uses of Madness".  Ellsberg tells him that he is very frustrated; he feels stuck in his career.  So Harry tells him that John McNaughton, Assistant Secretary of Defense, read his paper; liked it; and wants him to come to work for him.  Ellsberg is very happy. 

Carol, the wife of Ellsberg and mother of his two children, asks him for a divorce.  She complains that he is too ambitious and does not pay enough attention to his family.  Ellsberg tells her that he can change, but Carol just doesn't believe him.

Pentagon.  August 4, 1964.  Ellsberg is a GS-18, the highest level of clearance for a civilian.  He says:  "This is where I had always wanted to be."  Now it is possible that his influence can go to John McNaughton to Robert McNamara (the secretary of defense) and then to President Johnson.  On the TV President Johnson talks about the incident in the Gulf of Tonkin.  (This proved to be a made-up incident that the President used to lead the US into war.) 

At a cocktail party the daughter of a wealthy father Patricia Marx takes notice of Ellsberg.  He is saying that because of the Gulf of Tonkin incident the US has to answer the provocation with force.  Patricia is already anti-war and she speaks up contradicting him publicly.  After she leaves Ellsberg approaches her.  He tells her that he has only been in Washington, D.C. for about four months.  Patricia tells him that the city is known as the Virgin City.  A lot of bright idealistic people come to the city as political virgins and end up disillusioned losing their original virginity. 

At work Ellsberg tries to find out the true number of enemy dead in Vietnam.  There was simply no way to tell where the country stood because of contradictory sources.  In his study he finds that the number of enemy dead has been greatly exaggerated.  He finally goes to McNaughton to tell him about his uneasiness regarding the casualty reports.  He is surprised when McNaughton tells him that he has been waiting for him to say something on the subject.  He already has the same misgivings.  He tells Ellsberg that he will only report to him.  He wants him to write a white paper on how to get out of Vietnam just in case "this thing falls apart". 

Hau Nghia Province, Vietnam.  October 1965.  Ellsberg has come to Vietnam to find out more about the faulty casualty reports.  He works with the forces under General Edward Lansdale.  Ellsberg comments that in Vietnam there are the two different worlds of Saigon and "out there".  In Vietnam he bumps into an old colleague from the Rand Corporation, Anthony Russo.  He, like Ellsberg, has a lot of misgivings about the war.  The enemy is just not giving up like the Americans were told.  Ellsberg says he couldn't find out the truth, but still feels more committed than ever. 

Ellsberg has only planned to be in Vietnam for a few weeks.  But the weeks turned into months and the months turned into seasons.  At a bar/restaurant he runs into a reporter for the New York Times, Neil Sheehan.  Sheehan is very pessimistic about the war.  Ellsberg then notices Patricia Marx in the restaurant.  She tells him that she is working as a radio correspondent.   She asks him when can he expect an acceptable outcome in Vietnam.  He asks her to dinner.   After dinner they wind up in bed together.   Patricia asks him to come back to the US with her when she leaves in a few weeks.  Ellsberg only says that he is glad that she is here. 

Long An Province, 1966.  Ellsberg is in a Vietnamese village with the marines.  There are supposed to be twenty enemy dead in the village!  But the only dead in the village are villagers.  Later Russo tells Ellsberg that the interviews with Viet Cong prisoners revealed them to be dedicated, determined, monkish and idealistic. Ellsberg still continues with his body count study. 

Patricia tells Ellsberg that she is leaving in the morning.  Ellsberg tells her that he needs to stay longer.  They need some sort of victory in Vietnam.  At this Patricia blows up:  "Spare me!" she shouts.  She criticizes him for among other things encouraging the US to get involved in the mess that is Vietnam.  She kisses him and leaves. 

Rach Kien, Mekong Delta.  January 1967.  Ellsberg is with a marine unit.  They are going to the relief of other marines involved in heavy fighting.  Crossing a stream the other unit is caught in an ambush and are slaughtered.  Ellsberg and the unit he is with sees the slaughter after it is over.  They try to save some of the near dead without any luck. 

McNaughton died in a freak plane accident.  This ended Ellsberg's position.  To add to his misery ,Ellsberg got sick with hepatitis.  He goes to work again at the Rand Corporation.  His old boss criticizes him for his work on a paper that was to go to the White House.  The paper was too negative says the boss:  the situation is dire, we should admit our mistakes, we should have a change of strategy.

Rand Corporation, Santa Monica, California.  1968.  Harry tells Ellsberg that he should go see the psychiatrist.  And by the way, Kissinger didn't like his paper.  Ellsberg asks Harry if he can get a copy of the report he helped write on the history of the conflict in Vietnam.  Harry says he will see what he can do. 

Ellsberg seems to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  He has frequent flashbacks to Vietnam.

March 10, 1968.  General Westmoreland in Vietnam requests 206,000 more troops.  The force now is set at 510,000 soldiers. 

On CBS TV Walter Cronkite says that he has concluded that the country must negotiate in Vietnam.  He is of the opinion that the nation must seek a way out, not from victory, but from a people who did their best. 

Harry gets a copy of the Pentagon report on the history of the conflict in Vietnam.  And it is labeled top secret.  It has to be kept locked up in a safe.  Ellsberg comments that it wasn't what he expected at all.  The report consisted of over 7,000 pages in 47 volumes.  And it was a "chronology of our damnation".  The report showed that the American people had been lied to by four consecutive presidents:  Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson.  And, McNaughton secretly knew.  He says his faith, his trust, his allegiance all burned away.  And worse.  He was part of the big lie.  

Ellsberg decides that he has to do something about this.  He needed the right ally in Congress.  So he goes to see Arkansas senator William J. Fulbright, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.  He tells the senator that the Pentagon report shows a conspiracy to wage war without the approval of the congress or the blessings of the nation.  But since the document is top secret, Fulbright will have nothing to do with it.  He says to Ellsberg:  "Are you asking me to break the law?  I'm sorry.  I can't help you."  Ellsberg fails with the others too.  He is ready to give up.  Then his old colleague Russo shows up.  Russo has been working with the peace groups and he invites his old friend to a party.   The party is quite wild complete with drugs. 

Ellsberg meets Patricia again.  She urges him to go to the New York Times.  Ellsberg says:  "It's treason." 

Haverford College.  August 28, 1969.  A student gets up and says that his country depends on people like himself for their leaders.  But he is going to jail.  He won't fight in Vietnam.  That means he will never be a CEO or hold any high positions.  A permanent mark will be fixed upon him.  But, "I will wear it with pride."  The speech affects Ellsberg. 

Ellsberg says:  "We were eating our young."  He decides to do something about it.  Every evening he would leave with a couple of hundred pages from the Pentagon report.  He would xerox the pages from 1-4 in the morning and then put them back in the safe before any one came in to work.  Russo and his girlfriend assisted him.  And Ellsberg even had his two children working for him for awhile.  The project took months to do.  For that time it took over his life. 

One night there is a knock on the door.  Ellsberg is very frightened, but it turns out to be his ex-wife.  She yells at him saying:  "I don't want the children involved."

Ellsberg telephones Patricia.  He says that he was wrong and that he needs her help. 

The FBI pays Ellsberg a visit at his office at the Rand Corporation.  They have reason to believe that he is shopping the papers around.  Ellsberg opens the safe to show them the papers are all there.  An agent asks him if he has ever photographed or xeroxed any of the pages.  No, is the answer.  After the agents leaves, Harry scolds Ellsberg and tells him to take the job offered by M.I.T. 

Patricia shows up at Ellsberg's place.  She brought her bags.  She is committed to reading all 7,000 copied pages of the Pentagon report.  Ellsberg tells her that the war was wrong from the start.  It was always about domestic politics, about getting re-elected.  He warns Patricia that being around him puts her at risk.  She doesn't care.  He says:  "Marry me!"  They hug. 

Cambridge, Massachusetts.  1970.  Ellsberg calls Sheehan.  He tells him he has a good story  -- the Pentagon's war story.  Later he picks up Sheehan in his car.  Sheehan asks him what does he want?  Ellsberg replies:  "I want to get in the way of the bombing and the killing." 

Tricia Nixon, daughter to President Nixon, is getting married. 

June 13, 1971.  On the New York Times front page appears the article:  "Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces Three Decades of Growing US Involvement".   Ellsberg tells Patricia that there is no going back now.  She remarks:  "Somebody had to tell the truth."   Back at Rand, Harry is astonished at the appearance of the article in the newspaper. 

Nixon's henchmen decide to get whoever was responsible for the leak.  The henchmen are:  Bob Haldeman, Chief of Staff; John Mitchell, US Attorney General; and John Ehrlichman, Nixon's assistant for Domestic Affairs.  They suspect Daniel Ellsberg.  Haldeman tells his people:  "Find him and neutralize him."   They raid his place, but Ellsberg is gone.  So the FBI goes to speak with Anthony Russo.  Russo tells them that he doesn't want to talk to them.  So the FBI visits Ellsberg's ex-wife and then Harry at the Rand Corporation. 

The political pressure becomes too intense for the New York Times.  They pull the next segment of the Pentagon papers.  Sheehan calls Ellsberg to tell him that they stopped the presses on the grounds that the publication of the papers was a threat to National Security.  They will have to find another way to get the papers out to the public. 

Because of the scandal, Harry finds himself locked out of his office at the Rand Corporation. 

Ellsberg's name is all over the papers and the news.  The FBI named him as the primary suspect.  Ellsberg says that he is not giving up.  Ellsberg mentions that in the over 7,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers not one mention of the effects of the war on the Vietnamese people appears.  Patricia and Dan decide to take their case to the Supreme Court.  Patricia tells him:  "We've done all we can."

The charges against Ellsberg include the stealing of government property; the violation of the Espionage Act; and treason.  Life in prison is what the government wants for him.  Ellsberg's lawyers tell him:  "The sooner you turn yourself in, the sooner we can start fighting."

Boston, Massachusetts.  June 28, 1971.  Ellsberg turns himself in.  He says that he only wishes that he had gotten the Pentagon Papers out sooner.  He is arrested. 

The Supreme Court reaches a decision in the case.  In a verdict of 6 to 3, the Supreme Court permits the publication of the Pentagon Papers.  Among the statements by the court is the thought that the press must be left free in a democracy.  Ellsberg tells Patricia that the government will still try him for treason. 

Ellsberg tells his psychiatrist Lewis Fielding that he will not be coming back.  Fielding wishes him well. 

Beverly Hills, California.  September 3, 1971.  The Cubans from Miami working for the White House break into Dr. Fielding's office and steal Ellsberg's file.  Haldeman, Erlichman and Mitchell take the files straight to President Nixon. 

June 17, 1972.  The news is of the Watergate Apartments arrests of the Cubans and others breaking into Democratic Party headquarters.

Ellsberg's case has been going on for over a year remarks Patricia. 

May 11, 1973.  The judge in the Ellsberg-Russo case speaks of the break-ins by the government in Watergate and the Ellsberg affair.  He declares a mistrial and makes a motion to dismiss the case. 

Ellsberg tells the press that democracy is sacred; something worth fighting for.


Good movie.  Brought back a lot of memories of those times.  I remembered that back then I had said that the papers did not really tells us anything new.  By that late date, those of us who wanted to know the truth, already were aware of the deadly lies of our government.  But politically it had an effect, because it was a good weapon to smash over the heads of the unyielding hawks.  No one on the liberal side ever believed anything the government said, so it was funny to see the liberals suddenly believing everything the Pentagon Papers said about the Vietnam War (as long as it was negative that is).  But that's politics for you!  James Spader was great as Daniel Ellsberg.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.




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