Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers
nytheatre.com review by Brad Lee Thomason
March 4, 2010
If you were around in 1971, when the nation was rocked by the discovery of a 7,000-page document describing the origins of the Vietnam War, you might remember it changing the public's view of the government in quite a significant way. These days it's uncommon to find a person who isn't skeptical of what our leaders are telling us, and the word "politician" can almost be defined as "professional liar." The publication of the so called "top secret" Pentagon Papers was one of the main reasons we find ourselves now so disillusioned. Here was concrete proof that the government had deliberately misled the American public in order to escalate the conflict in Vietnam. Here, Americans were finally confronted with undeniable evidence that they had been lied to by four (4!) different presidential administrations.
If you weren't around at the time, the New York Theatre Workshop's production is a highly entertaining way to educate yourself. There are some admitted dramatic liberties taken, and a few of the characters have been consolidated, but Geoffrey Cowan and Leroy Adams have developed a tight, riveting drama from actual transcripts of the trial as well as recorded transmissions from Nixon himself without, they think, changing the essential facts, and that's good enough for me. Top Secret focuses on the Washington Post, which published the controversial information after an injunction from the federal government had already stopped the New York Times from continuing their own series on the topic.
The acting is uniformly superb and I was especially mesmerized by James Gleason in the role of no-nonsense and codgery Judge Martin Peel. Peter Strauss and Kathryn Meisle are both excellent in the roles of Washington Post's senior editor Ben Bradlee and its publisher, Katherine Graham. Meisle has a difficult role, not only is she the narrator of the piece but her character's rushed decision to publish causes the eventual "battle" that ensues between the Post and the United States Government in the second act.
The real heroes here, though, are the reporters—the individuals who were assigned by Bradlee to sift through thousands upon thousands of pages and present this material in a concise, intelligent, newspaper article within a space of about... oh, five hours. After all, Bradlee did not necessarily have the most altruistic motives for the publication of the Pentagon Papers; he was mainly trying to avoid the shame of being scooped by the New York Times. When finally confronted with possible jail time he was ready to agree to delay publication and even attempt to pre-negotiate with the federal government, and eventually, he left the final decision up to somebody else. The reporters, however, were ready to make a public resignation if the papers were not published, and that action alone sets off a chain reaction that changed the course of history. Had the Pentagon Papers not have been made public, the Vietnam conflict could have gone on for much longer; the Watergate break-ins might never have been discovered, and Richard Nixon might never have resigned from public office.
However, my purpose here is not to hypothesize about the course of history, Top Secret does a far better job of that than I possibly could. All I need to tell you is this: Top Secret is important theatre, and raises serious questions about both the media's and the government's responsibilities to the public and the symbiotic relationship that exists between them. As Jack Gilpin in the role of lawyer Brian Kelly so eloquently puts in the end, "And God help the nation if the press doesn't consider some of your stories off-base. This decision protects your right to publish. But what about your responsibility to keep some things secret?" Hopefully, good human nature will decide that protecting human life will always be a priority over saving one's own reputation. I will, however, still continue to doubt that.