By Mark Feeney
February 7, 2010
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara commissioned the Pentagon
Papers, a secret history of the Vietnam War, in 1967. Daniel
Ellsberg, a RAND Corp. analyst and Pentagon consultant, photocopied
its 7,000 pages and leaked them to The New York Times in 1970. When
the Nixon administration enjoined publication, Ellsberg leaked them
to The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and other newspapers.
A new Oscar-nominated documentary, "The Most Dangerous Man in
America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers'' recounts the
story. It opens in Boston Friday. Speaking by telephone recently from
his Berkeley, Calif., home, Ellsberg, 78, talked about the papers,
the documentary, and his love of the movies.
Q. How does it feel to be a movie star?
A. [Laughs] That's a good question. I haven't gotten the full feeling
yet, since the movie's not in wide theatrical release. There was a
time, 40 years ago, when I was very recognizable. And that lasted for
Q. James Spader played you in a 2003 TV movie, "The Pentagon
Papers.'' Did you ever see it?
A. He did a good job! He caught this obsessive quality that I have
and my intensity. As I said to my wife the first time I saw it, "Did
I look that good?'' She was played by someone comparably beautiful to
her, Claire Forlani, so that was nice to see.
Q. When you were photocopying all those documents four decades ago,
could you ever have foreseen this?
A. I was offered many times back then to have movies [made] or books
or whatever. And I passed them up. I didn't want to be seen to be
making money off of secrets. At the time [the story] would have been
a feature film.
Q. Who would have played you?
A. I don't remember the movie people of that day, so I'd have to be
reminded. But could I have foreseen the fame? I figured it was
possible. But it would depend on the reactions of the government. And
that turned out to be true.
Q. When you watch the movie, does it seem like 40 years have gone by?
A. Unfortunately, I'm watching it at a time when [similar] events
seem to be happening again, day by day [in Afghanistan]. The
documentary is like watching the evening news. Seeing the movie - the
bombs dropping from the planes - it just made me shudder, reliving
that. That's the main feeling I have. Not that it takes me back, but
that history is being reenacted.
Q. What do you think of the film?
A. I was just stunned at some of the archival images they found. That
clip they found, for example, of me going down the stairs behind
Q. You must have seen "The Fog of War.''
A. I like Errol Morris, whom I've met. But I know he was afraid that
if he got too probing McNamara would flee. So he was pretty
permissive of McNamara, who didn't reveal much, or say anything that
wasn't already in "The Pentagon Papers.'' But what I did find amazing
was the early footage where McNamara discloses he was involved in the
largest atrocity of all time, by body count, the fire-bombing of
Tokyo in March 1945.
Q. The late Howard Zinn says in the documentary that you'd seen
"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid'' seven times and that that's
what you went to see the night before the Times published the papers.
A. Four or five times, not seven. It's a terrific movie. I just
bought the DVD at Costco. I saw it and said, "Oh, I just can't pass this up.''
Q. The documentary's title comes from Henry Kissinger once calling
you "the most dangerous man in America.'' Do you consider that
libelous or complimentary?
A. Oh, well, from Kissinger I love it. I wanted them to think of me
as dangerous and maybe affect their policy.
Q. "Most Dangerous Man'' is a nominee for best documentary Oscar.
Will you go to the ceremonies?
A. Well, they have very limited tickets.
Q. I'm sure they could find you a seat.
A. Seriously, I don't know. If invited, I'd love to go. I love
movies. I go to all of them, good and bad. I liked "It's
Complicated'' and "Invictus'' and "The Blind Side.'' "Invictus'' I
liked very much. I had very mixed feelings about "Avatar.''
Q. You must have picked up on the Vietnam vibe.
A. I thought some of the political aspects of it were too obvious.
The idea that the solution for the indigenous people there was to
take up arms and beat the helicopters and tanks was unrealistic. It
was too cartoonish, even though I could agree with the politics.
Q. What else have you seen?
A. I liked "Youth in Revolt''; that was very funny. I liked "Crazy
Heart.'' "The Hurt Locker'' is a brilliant movie. Some people feel
it's an antiwar movie. Interestingly, I didn't see it that way at
all. I think it's a very good recruiting movie for the armed forces.
As a former Marine . . . I'm well aware of the adrenaline rush that
combat really does deliver. People who want that will see that in the
movie and say, Hey, that's what I want. I really do think there are
people who'll see that movie and think, I've got to sign up.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com