`Pentagon Papers' won't stop the presses

Drama of Ellsberg lost in passionless, disjointed TV story

TV Previews

March 08, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

There is almost nothing that can cheapen and shrink a major moment of national history like a mediocre made-for-TV movie. And The Pentagon Papers, which purports to tell how and why former Pentagon employee Daniel Ellsberg leaked secret documents on the Vietnam War in 1971, is a mediocre made-for-TV movie.

The primary problem is that director Rod Holcomb (The Education of Max Bickford) gives us pastiche instead of a film with a unified artistic vision and compelling emotional arc. Holcomb imitates the visual styles of several great feature films and then cobbles them together into a relatively lifeless television movie. It is intermittently interesting to look at, but leaves one cold and a bit confused as to what it all means.

James Spader's inner-directed, understated and remote performance as Ellsberg doesn't help matters either. The Pentagon Papers and Ellsberg deserve better and bigger treatment even on the small screen.

For those not familiar with the real event upon which the movie is based, it might help to think of Ellsberg as a government whistle-blower. Only this was one big whistle blown in 1971 in the face of a Richard Nixon White House, which seemed perfectly willing to dismantle the Constitution civil liberty by civil liberty if that's what it took to keep some of its nastier secrets and crimes from seeing the light of day.

Ellsberg copied and then handed to the New York Times 7,000 pages from a top-secret Department of Defense document that chronicled three decades of America's failure in Southeast Asia. The document suggested that any further commitment to the war was a mistake - at the very time that Nixon and Henry Kissinger were expanding the air campaign in the region beyond Vietnam's borders.

On June 13, 1971, reporter Neil Sheehan's first article on the secret documents appeared in the Times. Two days later, the administration won a restraining order in the courts against the Times. The injunction, which was extended to include the Washington Post after Ellsberg also gave the documents to that newspaper, literally stopped the presses.

It took a landmark Supreme Court ruling on June 30, 1971, to lift the injunction and allow the press to print stories based on the documents provided by Ellsberg. The consensus among media scholars is that the Pentagon Papers ruling is the most important decision ever rendered by the Supreme Court on freedom of the press.

The tremendous scope of that history is precisely what's missing in FX's The Pentagon Papers. Covering the years from 1963 when Ellsberg went to work as a defense analyst at the Rand Corp. to the court rulings in 1971 and his release from jail on charges of espionage and treason, the film instead goes for sex, melodrama and a visual style borrowed from other films.

The problem is that the borrowing seems to be done without understanding the genius of the originals. It's OK, for example, that Holcomb borrows from All the President's Men, Alan J. Pakula's brilliant 1976 feature film on the Watergate scandal. But what he copies is only the dark, spooky, paranoid imagery of deep shadows, darkness, offices being burgled and secret documents being half-illuminated by flashlights in the night.

What Holcomb fails to deliver are moments like the one in All the President's Men in which a swirling overhead camera is used to show two reporters seated in the Library of Congress late at night poring over documents as part of their investigation. As the camera pulls up toward an arched dome, the two young men become smaller and smaller until they are dwarfed by the marble majesty of the building in which they sit by themselves at night.

Pakula's daring shot suggests the awesome power and size of what the two reporters are taking on in their investigation of Nixon's White House. There is nothing similar in The Pentagon Papers to suggest the ferocity of the foe Ellsberg engaged when he decided to trust the press rather than the government. The fault for that lies in lack of imagination rather the smaller screen size.

`Oliver Beene'

It isn't hard to figure out what Fox is trying to do with its new sitcom Oliver Beene: Create a companion for its hit series Malcolm in the Middle on Sunday nights. If only Oliver Beene had a shred of Malcolm's smarts.

Set in 1962 and narrated in adult voiceover like The Wonder Years, the series revolves around 11-year-old Oliver Beene (Grant Rosenmeyer), an undersized kid with a totally dysfunctional family. The pilot finds the Beenes - of Rego Park in Queens, N.Y. - trying to move up the social ladder by joining a beach club.

The overall sensibility of the series is perhaps best suggested by a moment near the end of the pilot in which Jerry Beene (Grant Shaud), Oliver's dad, climbs out on the diving board at the beach club pool and proceeds to lower his pants and show his backside to the members. Bare backsides - both human and animal - are a recurring theme of the pilot.

The Pentagon Papers

When: Tomorrow night at 8.

Where: FX cable channel.

In brief: TV shrinks the national past into melodrama.

Oliver Beene

When: Tomorrow night at 8:30.

Where: WBFF (Channel 45).

In brief: A rude, derivative and dull new sitcom from Fox.

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