At the ripe old age of 86, Daniel Ellsberg is having his Hollywood close-up.
The former Rand Corp. analyst, who leaked classified Vietnam War documents known as the Pentagon Papers to news outlets in 1971, is a featured character in “The Post,’’ a film about the incident that’s nominated for a best picture Oscar. Ellsberg was at the premiere in Washington in December and at an Oscar nominees’ luncheon in Beverly Hills, California, earlier this month.
“It’s a wonderful timely movie for this moment,’’ Ellsberg said at a panel discussion at the Los Angeles Press Club. “Obviously even more than you could have foreseen.’
“The Post’’ was made in record time by Hollywood standards. Liz Hannah, who co-wrote the screenplay, began sharing it with potential producers shortly after Labor Day 2016. Amy Pascal, the former head of Sony Pictures, bought it in October, and by May of last year filming had begun, with Steven Spielberg directing and Tom Hanks starring as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.
Meryl Streep, who plays Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham in the film, is also up for an Oscar at the March 4 ceremony. Graham is the central figure in the picture, which deals with her decision to publish the papers even with an initial public stock offering looming and President Richard Nixon opposing their release. As a result, the film is as much about women in the workplace as it is freedom of the press.
“It all started with Kay Graham,” Hannah, the screenwriter, said at the Feb. 2 press club event. “I saw a lot of myself in her insecurities and her struggle to find her voice.”
The 21st Century Fox Inc. production has taken in more than $123 million at the box office since its Dec. 22 release.
At the press club, where “The Post’’ received the club’s Veritas award for best picture based on a true story, Ellsberg put his past efforts into the context of modern day controversies over classified documents.
Edward Snowden, who leaked National Security Agency documents and now lives in exile in Russia, and Chelsea Manning, who served prison time for revealing Iraq War intelligence, are “heroes,’’ according to Ellsberg.
Manning worked in a facility where she had access to even more sensitive information than what she released, Ellsberg said. In both cases there is no evidence undercover agents or others were harmed by the information released. “Chelsea, Snowden, I identify with them more than any other people in the world,’’ Ellsberg said. “I see in them the best of my past behavior.’’
Ellsberg had less praise for Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, the site responsible for releasing many of the classified documents. Ellsberg said Assange’s years cooped up in an embassy in London have made him “angry’’ and “clearly antagonistic to Hillary Clinton.’’
Ellsberg’s appearance came on the day President Donald Trump approved the released of a memo, drafted by House Republicans, revealing classified information about the Justice Department probe into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Ellsberg said there are big differences between his release of the Pentagon Papers and the Congressional memo. The memo, he said, is subject to criticism that it left out critical information. The Pentagon Papers, some 7,000 pages of which he copied, were readable by all as a result of his effort.
Of the memo, authored by Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, he said: “We seem to have a document that is very misleading, which the critics of it can’t refute because it’s classified. The analogy is not apt at all.’’
Ellsberg faced 12 felony counts and 115 years in prison for his release of the Pentagon Papers, a secret Defense Department history of the Vietnam War, that revealed the U.S. government was repeatedly lying to the American people about the conflict. He said it was worth it to stop an unjust war. The charges were ultimately dismissed.