As the Pen Center USA honored Francis Ford Coppola Monday at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg turned the night into a political discussion, naturally at an event celebrating free speech. Ellsberg first introduced ProPublica’s award at the Literary Awards Festival and then took the stage later in the night as Edward Snowden’s replacement. Snowden was scheduled to give a speech via Skype from Russia but wasn’t able to do so.
In his second speech, Ellsberg discussed his own actions, American government spying and torture, Osama Bin Laden and John Kiriakou’s time in prison, overall urging for patriotic whistleblowing. The activist’s speech became a timely and controversial political dialogue, and he was shortly cut off after saying, “If the U.S. had not invaded Iraq in 2003, if George W. Bush, the president, had not committed aggression against Iraq and set the Middle East aflame, ISIS wouldn’t exist. I’m saying there would be no ISIS.”
Many attendees got up to leave, but the murmuring room clapped when Ellsberg finally ended his almost 20-minute speech.
When Coppola accepted his lifetime achievement award, he forwent his rehearsed speech to speak from the heart. “We all know that this evening was a little stolen by a more political polemic style of thinking,” Coppola said. “Certainly we are all very much a believer of freedom of expression. Certainly that is the writers’ fundamental place to stand from. We believe in beauty, we believe in art and we believe in the right to express opinions. I want to deal with the human soul. I want to deal with the emotions and complexity that lie behind such terrible things happening in the world.”
Coppola brought “True Detective” creator Nic Pizzolatto, who presented his award, back on stage to ask his opinion. “I always find politics redundant to the human experience,” Pizzolatto said. “Art is meant to deal with life, and life contains ambiguities and ambivalence and movements of the spirit that are not accounted for in politics.”
Coppola ended the night noting he felt torn by the issues brought up at the ceremony and emphasized he wants every person to be treated well. “I’ll conclude with the beginning of my film. I believe in America.”
Before the night turned political, host Mary Lynn Rajskub opened the awards dinner banquet with well-received jokes, poking fun at the writers in the room. “This is the only Hollywood award show where having a degree in English isn’t considered a huge waste of time,” Rajskub said.
Roxane Gay (“Bad Feminist: Essays”), introduced by Cynthia Bond (“Ruby”), received the Freedom to Write award. “To say Roxane is prolific is an understatement,” Bond said. “Roxane Gay has spent her life writing freedom as her ink and truth as her parchment.”
Gay explained her writing is influenced by her inalienable right to freedom of expression. “I refuse to accept that inequality or violence and suffering are things we must accept as facts of life as if we do not dare to want for better, for more,” Gay said. “I see this world as it is but I refuse to accept this world as it is. In my writing, there is no room for complacency.”
Victor Lodato (“Arlington”), who won the drama award, opened up to the room, admitting he wouldn’t be here today without writing. “It’s no exaggeration to say that writing saved my life,” Lodato explained. “If the heart fails to express itself, the soul withers. When I couldn’t speak, I wrote.”
Other notable attendees included Jared Leto, who introduced his high school teacher, John Kiriakou (First Amendment award recipient), James Franco, Noah Hawley (teleplay award for “Fargo”) and Graham Moore (screenplay award for “The Imitation Game”).
(Pictured: Francis Ford Coppola and Daniel Ellsberg at the Pen Center USA’s Literary Awards Festival)