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Top Secret

Perhaps nothing did as much to end America’s involvement in Vietnam as the publication of the Pentagon Papers, which turned Daniel Ellsberg into an unlikely hero.


Meet the Press: James Spader and Claire Forlani as the Ellsberg, in The Pentagon Papers.  

Does Fox News know about this TV movie on its cable sibling? I mean, The Pentagon Papers not only valorizes Daniel Ellsberg, the rogue researcher at the Rand Corporation’s Santa Monica think tank who leaked 7,000 pages of a top-secret Department of Defense report on what went wrong in Vietnam, but also celebrates the New York Times, which published articles based on that leak; the Supreme Court, which voted six to three against prior restraint of such publication; and even the antiwar movement of the permissive sixties (all those pot-smoking weenies).

Casting James Spader as Ellsberg was inspired. From sex, lies, and videotape to Crash to Secretary, something else is always going on in Spader’s head while his body stands around in our world. When his impersonation of Ellsberg joins Rand colleague Anthony Russo (Paul Giamatti) for hard rock, soft drugs, kinky sex, and soul shriveling, you almost expect him to spank his car. Alan Arkin is rather wasted in the underwritten role of Harry Rowen, Ellsberg’s indulgent boss at Rand, and so is Jonas Chernick as Times reporter Neil Sheehan. But Claire Forlani (Basquiat, Meet Joe Black, AntiTrust) makes Ellsberg’s second wife, the socialite heiress Patricia Marx, more radically interesting on camera than she seems to be in the screenplay. As with Spader, there is activity behind her eyes.

To this mix add a director, Rod Holcomb, who has specialized in slam-bang pilots for television series like Wiseguy, The Equalizer, China Beach, and ER. And I also notice a credit to “consulting producer” John Sacret Young, who was the executive producer for China Beach, the best American artwork to emerge from the war in Vietnam this side of Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers.

All the President’s Men appears to be the movie model The Pentagon Papers had in mind: heavy breathing, hold the mayo. Only the underground parking garage is missing; Ellsberg is his own Deep Throat. This is sometimes hokey, though the nighttime Xeroxing of so many thousands of pages by Ellsberg and his children—surely a bad idea, that one—had to have been fraught. Omitted are Ben Bagdikian, who collected volumes of the Pentagon Papers from Ellsberg for the Washington Post and told us so engagingly about it in an unassuming memoir; and Sidney Zion, who fingered Ellsberg as the source of the papers, for which Zion was reviled at the time by people like me who should have known better; and quite a lot of Ellsberg himself, who was much more erratic than the film hints at, and whose diva-based dramaturgy persists to this day.

Still, it’s refreshing to be reminded by a well-made entertainment that once upon a time there were consciences to be stricken, newspapers with some adversarial jumping beans, and an appreciation of the fact that—of course!—governments would rather we didn’t know classified secrets about themselves and their wars, because if we did know, a hitherto obedient demos might actually question policy instead of parroting it.

Adam West, who played Bruce Wayne and Batman twice a week for three seasons in the jokey sixties television series on ABC, insists in Return to the Batcave, an amusing reunion movie, that “we weren’t camp . . . It was more of a farce or lampoon. Like Oscar Wilde.” On the other hand, maybe not. But it was certainly more fun than anything in the subsequent gloomy Hollywood movie versions of the Caped Crusader (except Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman).

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