The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009) dir. Judith Ehrlich, Rick Goldsmith
By Alan Bacchus
The spectre of Richard Nixon continues to produce more compelling stories and interesting characters than ever before. With this documentary the microscope zooms in on the story of Daniel Ellsberg's leak of the Pentagon Papers and its influence into activism in the ‘60s, the Vietnam War and the fall of Richard Nixon. It’s a film that successfully links itself to the other great Nixon/Vietnam era political films, such as Frost/Nixon, All the President’s Men, Nixon and The Fog of War.
In many ways Daniel Ellsberg symbolizes the best qualities of the zeitgeist of political activism in the ‘60s – a man who risked family, career and public reputation for the sake of the fundamental constitutional values, which, in his mind, appeared to be forsaken by the country's elected powers. Ehlich and Goldsmith's film serves as a cinematic memoir for Ellsberg, who reveals his motivations, regrets and the moment-by-moment emotions of the two-year period between the leaking of the papers and his ultimate exoneration.
To refresh... the Pentagon Papers was the notorious term for a top secret study prepared by the Department of Defence on U.S./Vietnam relations from 1947-1968. It was a study that revealed scathing lies from four presidents about the motivations, execution and escalation of the Vietnam War.
In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, a former political advisor to Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara and researcher with the Rand Corporation, leaked these details to the New York Times, the effect of which saw him arrested for espionage and caused the snowball effect of Watergate and Richard Nixon's eventual resignation.
Ellsberg is still alive and provides the narration and key interviews recounting this complex story. We learn about his Harvard education and recruitment into the exclusive political think tank, The Rand Corporation, where he made a name for himself with his ability to think outside the box. During this time his work drafting military risk strategies and decision-making theories helped influence Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara escalate the war in Vietnam. It wasn’t until he met his wife, an activist and protestor, that he awoke to the real-world effects of his work. And so, Ellsberg recounts the difficult moral conflict he found himself faced with. With this knowledge in his possession, did he have a moral obligation to disclose it for the greater good of the nation?
We learn about the connections he made with colleague Anthony Russo to steal the papers and covertly send them to the papers. When the news hit the streets we get to hear the first-hand reactions of Nixon, John Ehlichman and Henry Kissinger via Nixon's own White House wiretap tapes sounding off on the shit-storm fallout caused by the leak.
The uncomplicated tried and true documentary techniques are not flashy, but they effectively visualize the story. Talking heads are formally composed and artistic recreations borrowed from the Errol Morris or Man on Wire school of oblique close-ups do the job of visualizing what could not be shown by news footage or stock photos. Ultimately, the emotional power is in the voices and faces of the participants.
At 75, Ellsberg emerges as a hero and a champion for political activism and perhaps the original and most important whistle blower ever. His moral conflict is articulated best by one of the interviewees who discusses the need to have young people on the jury of his trial. Anyone at middle age would likely find disdain for what Ellsberg did, not because of ethical differences, but because of the fact that Ellsberg's actions would have revealed the cowardice of those ordinary men and women who wouldn't have had the guts to do the right thing. The decision to risk family and career for one’s morals is something few of us have had to face. And for those that have, even fewer have gone through with it.