The year, 2005: The United States was involved in two wars. We had been lied into at least one of them (Iraq) by our president. The other war (Afghanistan) was already 4 years old, and there was no end in sight. The relevance of Dan Ellsberg’s story with the Pentagon Papers, risking life in prison to stop a war he helped plan, was unmistakable.
We both knew Dan, who had appeared in Rick’s Oscar-nominated "Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press." Judith’s first encounter with Dan was as an adviser on her ITVS film "The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It," on conscientious objectors in World War II.
A mutual friend suggested Dan knew more about WWII than anyone. It was her first encounter with Dan, a walking/talking repository of information and analysis.
Our previous films were about people of conscience who took action against war and injustice, so Dan’s story was a natural progression for both of us. Still, it took months of discussions with Dan before he agreed to trust us.
How could he be sure we would do it justice? As with most documentaries, it is a big risk for someone — especially one as controversial as Dan — to let you into his life, to reveal his intimate thoughts, feelings and details, and to trust you won’t twist the facts, the facts as he sees them anyway.
Dan liked our past films, and he finally agreed — only asking for the chance to see a final cut, to have the opportunity to comment on accuracy. When we showed Dan and his wife, Patricia, the final cut, he asked if he could give us notes.
Not ordinarily a good sign, but in this case Daniel used his skills as a top-level analyst to analyze the details of time, place, chronology and events for accuracy, and to offer corrections and suggestions. What could be better than that?
The most surprising thing for us making the film was the research into the Nixon tapes. We didn’t know the president had ever uttered the name Daniel Ellsberg. We certainly didn’t know how much his obsession with Dan was ultimately the root of his downfall.
We always felt that the story of Dan’s act of "civil courage" would be instructive, and hopefully inspiring, to today’s America. We had hoped we could finish the film before President George W. Bush left office, as we thought the film might become less relevant with a new, less autocratic Democrat as president.
What were we thinking? Democrats Kennedy and Johnson got us knee deep in the big muddy of Vietnam. Alas, President Obama raised troop levels by 30,000, in a war — now 8 years old — that still has no end in sight.
Dan’s voice, his viewpoints on war and peace and U.S. foreign policy, on secrecy in government, on stepping up and speaking out, and his example of courage and risk-taking, have never been more needed by this country than they are now.
We Americans tend to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the social and political problems that surround us. It is easy for any of us, young or old, to become complacent — to say, "Why bother?"
Maybe this film can help, in some small way, to answer that question.
It was a privilege to tell this story and give Ellsberg a platform for his latest work, a lecture to become a book on the subject of “Vietnamistan, 185 parallels between the Vietnam and Afghanistan Wars.”
We set out to tell a story of great historic importance in the style of a narrative political thriller. We ended up with a story that painfully points toward a way to understand today’s headlines.