Film gave Spader a refresher course in history

Fear of being branded a traitor didn't stop Daniel Ellsberg from putting himself on the line.

While working for the Rand Corporation in the 1960s, the former Pentagon employee came into possession of a top-secret document indicating the Vietnam War could not be settled by military force. Government officials denied the report existed, but Ellsberg felt compelled to share its contents.

He leaked the information to The New York Times and The Washington Post, and the Nixon administration's effort to suppress it led to the involvement of the Supreme Court. The controversy is dramatized in "The Pentagon Papers," a taut, engrossing FX movie that debuts Sunday.

James Spader ("Secretary," "Stargate") stars as Ellsberg, who went into hiding and eventually was charged with treason and other crimes that could have yielded a 115-year prison sentence. Claire Forlani ("Meet Joe Black") plays Ellsberg's love interest; Alan Arkin portrays his boss at Rand, a think tank with ties to the Department of Defense; and Paul Giamatti ("Big Fat Liar") appears as a co-worker who supports his actions.

"My age was going from single digits to double digits when all of this was unfolding," Spader recalls, "and it was really the first time I became
conscious of a larger world beyond the parameters of my neighborhood. At that time, the news was in your house every day, just because of what was unfolding in the world. I have two older sisters, plus I grew up on a boarding-school campus, so I was always around people older than I was. That helped make me very conscious of what was happening at the time."

Although he was familiar with Ellsberg's story, Spader needed -- and wanted -- a refresher on him before "The Pentagon Papers" went into production.

"To me, that was the most interesting part of the project," Spader confirms, "to go back and read a lot of materials, including those that have been written with retrospect since that time. Some people were pretty visceral about (the situation) back then, but now, they're able to write about it with reflection."

Ellsberg's own account, "Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers," was published last fall, after the movie was completed, but Spader still had plenty of material to draw from.

"Ellsberg's sphere of influence was enormous and broad, from the East Coast to the West Coast, from working in the government to working at Rand," he says. "When he came back from Vietnam (where he went on a fact-finding mission), his shift in ideology was so extreme, his sphere of influence would change and expand.

"The (movie's) prop master would hand us actual front pages from newspapers or magazine covers that (Ellsberg) would have been reading at the time," Spader adds. "He was a piece of so many different histories, as late as the Watergate hearings, it wasn't until I could see it (recently) that I recognized the pervasive qualities his life had. There seemed to be only one or two degrees of separation between Daniel Ellsberg and everyone else. Maybe that's a reflection of the politics of the time. Everyone's fingers were in everybody else's business."

Spader says he would like to have met Ellsberg, though he knew that wouldn't be possible "based on the very first telephone conversation I had regarding this project. I came on board the film at what was short notice for me, and I asked the producer if Ellsberg was cooperating and if I could have access to him. The answer was, 'No. This is not a project being done in association with him.' Therefore, there would have been certain complications had I tried to initiate that (contact)."

Much as Daniel Ellsberg is a multifaceted person, "The Pentagon Papers" is several movies in one. The sequences that take Ellsberg to Vietnam have a much different style than those about him and his girlfriend, or those that show him photocopying the documents that will cause such a stir.

"I don't think I was ever that objective about it," Spader notes of the stylistic shifts. "The shoot was pretty fast and furious, and I didn't have
a moment to breathe. I was in every single scene, so I was never able to step back and get a sense of (the movie's overall look). During the Vietnam scenes, I was more concerned about having to stand in cold water."

Other Spader films such as "sex, lies, and videotape" and "White Palace" might lead fans to believe he intentionally chooses roles that are
unconventional yet culturally relevant.
"It's probably happenstance that a film works or not, because of where society is at the time," he says. "I think any film is lucky to appear at the right moment; if it does, it's perceived as being more of a success for all those involved.

"Usually, the films that are the most satisfying to work on are the ones that are more socially unaware. You can play around in sort of a vacuum. When it's thrown out into the world, if it happens to stick, fantastic. For me, films have always been best-made in a sequestered, secret place."

© 2003 The Times-Picayune Publishing Company Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA) (Thank you, Susan!)