Barbra Streisand has kept Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg out of jail, says director

Barbra Streisand has kept Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg out of jail, says director

Daniel Ellsberg died on Friday aged 92 after a battle with cancer and just six weeks after wrapping up 40 hours of interviews with documentary filmmaker Paul Jay, who is working on How to stop a nuclear war. The feature film follows the efforts of the Pentagon Papers leaker to sound the alarm about the threat of devastating nuclear war.

Monday, Jay said The Hollywood Reporter that the man who raised the alarm about the Vietnam War was far more concerned for the rest of his life about the United States and Russia planning a globally destructive nuclear strike that could be launched accidentally or intentionally.

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“Dan viewed the world today as more dangerous than it was during the Cuban Missile Crisis,” said the Toronto-based filmmaker of the October 1962 confrontation between US President John F. Kennedy, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and the Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro which almost resulted in a nuclear war.

To complete his feature-length documentary, Jay said he finished about 40 hours of interviews with Ellsberg on May 1 as work on his film continued during Ellsberg’s illness. The film, narrated by Emma Thompson, is based on Ellsberg’s book Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.

Ellsberg famously made copies of the Pentagon Papers and classified nuclear documents during the Nixon administration and leaked the documents to The New York Times and other media outlets in 1971. As a top-level Pentagon analyst, Ellsberg was accused by the United States of violating the Espionage Act, but the case was eventually dropped due to government misconduct in gathering evidence in 1973.

Jay credits Hollywood actress Barbra Streisand with throwing a birthday party for a key fundraiser that year to underwrite Ellsberg’s legal defense to the point that his trial could continue until all charges against him and co-defendant Anthony Russo could not be dismissed on grounds of gross government misconduct.

“If it wasn’t for that Streisand fundraiser, they[Ellsberg and Russo]would have run out of money and Dan probably would have spent the rest of his life in prison,” Jay said.

“In the film, we have him (Ellsberg) telling the story of the party because, indirectly, that ability to keep the trial going and having his case thrown out led to the full disclosure of the Watergate scandal, which led to the downfall of Nixon, which resulted in him not dropping nuclear weapons on Vietnam, which I think is pretty clear is what would have happened otherwise,” adds the director.

In extensive interviews with the director for the feature film, Ellsberg explained the “institutional insanity” of America’s nuclear war plans and how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has made the world far more dangerous, according to a synopsis for the documentary. The documentary will trace Ellsberg’s journey from being a Cold War hawk to becoming an activist against nuclear weapons, a position he held until his death.

“I think he felt frustrated that he wasn’t able to get more, that despite overwhelming evidence, you can’t have a serious conversation in Congress, in the media, with the President of the United States. It’s almost as if talking about nuclear weapons is taboo,” Jay said.

In the feature film, now in production, Ellsberg warns that the nuclear weapons arsenals of the United States and Russia are still a threat to global peace and that all-out nuclear war can still be launched from missile silos or submarines on minutes notice.

Jay says the Barbra Streisand Foundation is an early investor in the documentary, which is currently assembling a rough cut that sales agent UTA can purchase on cable TV and streaming platforms for a possible US distribution deal.

Veteran producer and co-founder of Hot Docs International Documentary Festival, Jay directed Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows. He will helm How to stop nuclear war, while Earl Katz (Democracy hacked) and Rob Johnson (Taxi to the dark side) will executive produce.

He is also the founder, editor-in-chief and host of, a news analysis service, and executive producer of the CBC television magazine series Counter rotation and the television series Show me yours.