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The Pentagon Papers (2003)

Defense worker Daniel Ellsberg seeks to publish a series of classified government documents detailing the true nature of America's involvement in the Vietnam War.




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Nominated for 1 Primetime Emmy. Another 1 win & 3 nominations. See more awards »


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Cast overview, first billed only:
... Daniel Ellsberg
... Patricia Marx
... Anthony Russo
... Harry Rowen
... John McNaughon
... Carol Ellsberg
Sean McCann ... John Mitchell
... H.R. Haldeman
Richard Fitzpatrick ... John Ehrlichman
... Neil Sheehan
... Jan Butler
... Randy Kehler
... Senator Fulbright (as George Robertson)
... FBI Agent
Roland Rothchild ... FBI Agent


Daniel Ellsberg, a hawkish analyst for the Rand Corporation think-tank and later for the U.S. government, supports the war in Vietnam until two powerful occurrences: the experience, first-hand, of combat and political turmoil in Vietnam, and the discovery of secret Defense Department documents detailing the deliberate fabrication of reasons to initiate and expand the war. Facing a crisis of conscience, Ellsberg becomes convinced that the American people have not been told the truth about the war, its justifications, or its likely outcome. He decides to expose the secret history of the war in hopes that the American public, its eyes opened, will force the government to end the war. In order to do so, he must risk his career and his freedom, perhaps even his life. Written by Jim Beaver <jumblejim@prodigy.net>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


His greatest act of patriotism was an act of treason. See more »

Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)

Rated R for some war images and brief sexuality | See all certifications »




Release Date:

9 March 2003 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

A Pentagon-ügyirat  »

Filming Locations:


Company Credits

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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:


(archive footage)| (archive footage)| |

Aspect Ratio:

1.33 : 1
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Did You Know?


The name of the book that Daniel Ellsberg (James Spader) was reading was "The Life of Gandhi" about Mohandas K. Gandhi (aka "Mahatma Gandhi"). See more »


The exterior of a bar supposedly located in Saigon clearly displays signs written in the Thai language, and some of the signs are from contemporary times, as evidenced by product logos, rather than from 1965. See more »


Referenced in Spook (2003) See more »

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User Reviews

James Spader Offers His Best Performance of the Unlikely Hero Who Exposed Government Documents
8 December 2012 | by See all my reviews

Sometimes the people who have the best perspective on a side of an issue are those who were formerly advocating for the other side. Daniel Ellsberg was employed by the Rand Corporation and then the US Executive Branch at the Pentagon as a mid-level researcher. In the 1960's, Ellsberg advocated for the war in Vietnam. He believed that the cause for democracy around the world was worth the sacrifice of the lives of young men in the South Pacific. After a tour of Vietnam and acquisition of federal documents revealing the history of the war, Ellsberg began to question the morality of the US's Vietnam involvement.

James Spader offers perhaps his best and most important performance as the young and middle-aged Daniel Ellsberg, the man Nixon referred to as a "traitor". The made-for-TV film chronicles Ellsberg's career as a high-level researcher in international affairs. After finishing his doctorate, Ellsberg first worked for the Rand Corporation and then later the Pentagon. He had been completely sold on America's involvement in Vietnam. He is then sent to Vietnam as a researcher to contribute to the Pentagon's internal study of the war.

Upon his return, Ellsberg begins to doubt whether the war in Vietnam is simply a self-perpetuating abattoir with no end in sight, a slaughter-house which keeps feeding upon itself. Were the ends really about spreading the cause of democracy or about some other political ends? Ellsberg sends in his contribution to the study based on his experiences in Vietnam. He then learns that his writing as well as many other researchers were compiled together in a 7000-page internal document chronicling the history of the war in Vietnam.

Ellsberg requests from the Pentagona a copy of the internal study, later dubbed the Pentagon Papers by the Press. Ellsberg reads the entire 7000-page monstrosity only to learn that the Vietnam cause goes as far back as Truman, and the ends for Vietnam were not really about the cause of democracy but more about short-term political gains. In other words, no US President wanted to declare Vietnam a failure on their watch, and passed the buck to the next president. Ellsberg is appalled at the disregard for human life for the purposes of political ends. But what can he do about it? A thoroughly engrossing and underrated film about Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Spader is completely believable as the man regarded as both hero and villain, depending upon the perspective. Nixon and his cronies regarded Ellsberg as a traitor, compromising their goals in Vietnam. They used the old "threat to national security" argument as the reason that the papers should not be released to the public. Others believed that all the information about the war needed to be exposed to encourage healthy debate. How can we, as a supposed democracy, ever make sound judgments on an issue if we are deprived of all the facts?

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