“It wasn’t that we were on the wrong side, we were the wrong side,” says whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg of the Vietnam war, words that have eerie resonance to the complicated modern day conflict in the Middle East. Ellsberg, government employee and idealist, was responsible for turning over the top secret ‘Pentagon Papers’ to the press in 1971, and he is both subject and narrator of this fine Oscar-nominated documentary.
Directors’ Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith stylistically unremarkable but compelling narrative charts Ellsberg’s transition from toeing the public service line to reformed anti-war protestor. Ellsberg describes this epiphany himself, which occurred while listening to draft dodger Randy Kehler calmly announcing to a protest group how he would soon be joining his friends in prison. This idealism struck Ellsberg; 7,000 photocopied pages later, The New York Times found themselves with a document describing the government’s plans for the secret expansion of the Vietnam War.
Ellsberg’s leak indicted administrations as far as back as Harry Truman’s, and stated inexplicably that 70% of the reason for American’s maintained presence in Vietnam was only to avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat – in other words, to save their nation’s public image. As equally astonishing is the attitude of President Nixon, represented in real Oval Office tapes, who offhandedly recommends the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam to a more cautious Henry Kissinger.
The documentary is not a groundbreaker, but a timely reminder of a government’s responsibility to its people, and a fine portrait of a government stooge turned activist. [JOSHUA BLACKMAN]