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FX scores with 'Pentagon'

Movie shows how cable outclasses broadcast nets

Score another one for cable.

While reality runs rampant on the broadcast networks, the ambitious FX cable network is presenting a serious and timely telemovie called "The Pentagon Papers."

Just as with its recent biographical movie about Robert F. Kennedy, this FX drama recognizes the power not only of fact-based stories, but of accurately quoted speeches, remarks and publications. Many of the best parts of "The Pentagon Papers," which airs Sunday night at 9 MST, are taken straight from the record: newspaper accounts, courtroom transcripts and even CBS News reports by Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather.

The same sense of seriousness is aided by the movie's intense performers — especially James Spader as Daniel Ellsberg — and by its accidental relevance.

With the United States on the brink of war, this drama about one man's slow metamorphosis from military insider to defiant whistle-blower couldn't be more captivating.

In artistic approach as well as chronology, "The Pentagon Papers" might as well be an official prequel to "All the President's Men." Both stories are about methodical discoveries and public disclosures of abuses at the highest levels of government. One ends virtually where the other begins. And both, at their climaxes, pit the power of the press against the power of the presidency.

"The Pentagon Papers," written by Jason Horwitch and directed by Rod Holcomb, is a movie about ideas. Aside from some early action when Ellsberg (Spader) witnesses gory battle scenes in Vietnam, the movie is about slow, subtle, sometimes invisible shifts. Shifts in the country's policies about war, and its citizens' opinions of it. Shifts in the thinking of those in the nation's think tanks. Shifts in allegiances between employer and employee, husband and wife, reporter and source, supporter and dissenter.

Most of the movie is on Spader's shoulders, and he bears the weight handily. Just how handily is revealed during the closing credits, when we see footage of a 1971 CBS interview with Ellsberg and are reminded of how closely Spader captured his subject.

Ellsberg isn't painted as a saint here — but once he is inspired to begin a clandestine effort to copy all 7,000 pages of the government's top-secret analysis of its war policies in Southeast Asia, he takes on the zealous passion of one. The road to publication, and the fight before the Supreme Court to continue that publication and reveal the hidden motives behind the Vietnam War, make for an exciting detective story and history lesson — even if, as in "All the President's Men," you know the ending.

In supporting roles, Paul Giamatti as a confidante, Claire Forlani as a loyal lover and Alan Arkin as a betrayed boss all give "The Pentagon Papers" the weight it deserves.

And while the motives of Ellsberg are debated in this film, the motives behind the project itself should be considered above reproach.

While the broadcast networks are embracing so-called reality shows, cable networks like FX and movies like "The Pentagon Papers" are enjoying a virtual monopoly on dramas about actual reality, including topics of substance.

If you're watching TV this year, you know that's anything but top secret.