I remembered vividly (or so I thought) the Pentagon Papers events from 1971, when I was 20. And I knew Dan Ellsberg, whom I had interviewed on camera for a previous documentary film. Then, in 2002, I read Ellsberg’s new book, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, and I was struck by what a phenomenal drama this story was — a personal transformation of epic proportions, set against the backdrop of the most important events, personalities and issues of that time: the war in Vietnam, Richard Nixon and a landmark First Amendment battle that pitted national security concerns against the people’s right to know.
I approached Dan with a short outline for a film, but the project didn’t get off the ground at that time. Then, in late 2004, Judy Ehrlich approached me with a proposition, “What about doing a film on Daniel Ellsberg?” By then America was immersed in two wars, at least one of which we’d been lied into, and the parallels, resonance and relevance of the Ellsberg/Pentagon Papers saga were unmistakable.
Thematically, I felt I was on comfortable and invigorating ground. My first feature doc — the one Ellsberg was in, Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press — focused on a dissenter (a muckraking journalist) who stuck out his neck on matters of principle. The several films I’d been involved with since then, dealt with ordinary Americans who took risks and exhibited courage in order to try to change their world for the better. This film was, for me, in that tradition, but it was also something more — grander, perhaps, in the sense that it took place on a bigger stage and involved characters with whom the audience could identify as they asked themselves, “What would I do in that situation?”
During production, I discovered how much I didn’t know about the story, including the contagious crises of conscience experienced by so many of the principals involved. Ellsberg was inspired by a draft resister who was risking years in prison; Ellsberg’s leak of the top-secret McNamara study had many people — his “co-conspirator” Russo, reporters and lawyers for The New York Times, a Senator, a Congressman, Dan’s own son, his wife and even members of President Nixon’s White House staff — asking themselves variations of the same question: “Will I be breaking the law and, if so, should I still take part in what I have before me?”
One great irony of this production is that Judy and I tried to get the film finished while the Bush administration, which had started the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was still in office, as we thought it might be less relevant after a change of administration. We finished the film post-Bush, but — fortunately for the film, unfortunately for the country and the world — the film remains all too relevant, with those wars still raging and, in the case of Afghanistan, even escalating.
But of course the film is about more than any one particular war; it’s about our attitude towards war as a solution to political or social conflicts. (Patricia Ellsberg says that our country needs the same kind of political transformation that her husband went through personally.) The film is also about democracy and what it takes to make it work — do we play “follow the leader” or do we insist that Congress, the media and the public have their rightful input into the big issues and matters of life and death that affect all the peoples of the world? And finally, it is about what each of us can do, might do, when confronted with a wrong, big or small, perhaps among friends or at work. Do we go along to get along, or do we act to right the wrong, perhaps at great personal risk?