In 1967, a top secret document was commissioned by the government, tracing the United States’ history with the Vietnam war. This history went as far back as the 1940’s. The result was a 7,000 page document. In 1971, a defense department official and former Rand corporation employee, Daniel Ellsberg, secretly photocopied these “Pentagon Papers” and released them to the New York Times. Then President, Richard Nixon, called Ellsberg’s act “treasonable”. FX and Paramount’s television production of The Pentagon Pa…ers details this period in Ellsberg’s life and times.
The opening credit sequence (with its shadowy images and sounds) sets up the expectation that this movie will be a taut political thriller. Perhaps in the style of The Parallax View or Winter Kills (which are must sees, by the way). Unfortunately, the sequence belies the film’s true events. It’s really a carefully crafted character piece; at least, it tries to be. James Spader plays Ellsberg with a kind of indirect integrity. In any given performance, you’re never quite sure where Spader is coming from. And you probably think he’s into something kinky. In The Pentagon Papers, Spader’s indirect and unconventional qualities are a good match for Ellsberg.
There are moments when the director, Rod Holcomb, tries a bit too hard to play up Ellsberg’s “hero” aspect. There are shots of a conflicted Ellsberg sitting on the beach, a sex scene that looks right out of a James Bond movie, and a courtroom victory scene complete with hugs and a swell of music. A quote on the back of the film tells us to think of The Pentagon Papers as a prequel to All the President’s Men. Historically, perhaps, this might be true, as Nixon’s plumbers made attempts to discredit Ellsberg. In terms of film quality, All the President’s Men is in a class by itself (it’s one of my favorite movies). The Pentagon Papers tries to combine political intrigue with personal biography. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
In another acting note, Alan Arkin was nominated for an Emmy for his work. It’s always nice to see him on screen, even if it’s for a brief time. He gives a good understated performance here.
An inconsistent transfer; but there’s a reason… a lot of the graininess is intended by the filmmakers. There are moments in Papers (most notably the Vietnam scenes) where there is an extreme amount of grain. The “modern” scenes are much cleaner. I think the intention here is to use different film stock, like Oliver Stone’s work, to show psychological differences in the main character. Ellsberg’s experiences in Vietnam were extremely formative ones. The graininess of “the past” helps to explain this aspect to the audience. An interesting technique.
The transfer for the majority of the film is adequate. There’s not a lot of edge enhancement because there’s not a lot of sharpness. The color palette is modest, warm tones come off best. Aspect ratio is a full screen 1.33:1.
This discs Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack sounds good, but is not breaking new ground. However, the opening sequence really takes hold of you. Dialogue is a tad muddy at times, but, for the most part, very clear. Surround sound is used mostly for environmental design. It’s most effective with sounds of rain in Vietnam and party noise.
None. Unless you read the back of the disc cover. Apparently Full Screen Format is a special feature. Frankly, I don’t think there’s anything “special” about full screen.
The menu is just a picture. No music.
The story of Daniel Ellsberg is a fascinating tale of government subterfuge. The Pentagon Papersdoes a respectable job of bringing some of Ellsberg’s issues to light. James Spader’s performance is intriguing, but one can’t help feeling, when it’s all said and done, that a better movie could’ve been made. Not to mention, the picture and sound are merely adequate. However, it’s a timely movie in the sense that the “war” in Iraq has now come under some scrutiny. Maybe there will be a Daniel Ellsberg of Iraq. Or…maybe there is…and he’s just waiting…
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