The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
Directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith
When I first read that the story of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers had been made into a documentary it went straight onto the list of films to keep an eye out for. I love films about warfare in general, and especially those that look into its politics and psychology. Due to last year being the 40th anniversary of the events 1968 there was a spate of exhibitions and documentaries looking back at the events surrounding the Vietnam War, the student protests in Paris, London and throughout the US, and the violence at the Chicago DNC. It was obviously particularly poignant given the political climate of last year’s US elections and the change in attitude towards politics.
Most of those films ended with the depressing outcome of the election of Nixon and the perceived death of the hope for a change in politics and the war. This documentary tries to show that the spirit of the demonstrations and their legacy did carry on, and in the most unlikely of places.
The Most Dangerous Man in America tells the story of Daniel Ellsberg who worked as a top policy analyst to the state and defense department in the realm of war planning under Robert McNamara. He was seconded onto a study being carried out by the Rand Corporation about the situation in Vietnam. The study itself was requested by McNamara, who at that point was beginning to have doubts about the Vietnam war, with the intention of keeping it secret from then President, Lyndon Johnson. Ellsberg on realising the public were being lied to about Vietnam took the study, which comprised of thousands of top-secret documents, and released them to the press in the hope of ending the Vietnam War.
There has been very little written about this documentary that hasn’t made the comparison to Errol Morris’ Fog of War and that’s justified. It would be hard not to look at them as companion pieces as both films are testimonial in style and share subject matter. This is in no way a bad thing for either film as they compliment each other perfectly and add to the other’s story, considering both of their central character’s position in history. Both films show men engulfed in roles that were central to the outcome of a war that ended up challenging their ethics and principals. The main difference between the two is that this documentary picks up where Fog of War left off, whilst at the same time is showing a complete flip side to the story.
Daniel Ellsberg serves as the film’s narrator and this gives the story far more emphasis on his experience than the story as an historical record, which works really well. The film could easily have been made to show Ellsberg as an outright hero, but the various interviews show how complex the ethics are surrounding the release of classified documents when national security and the logistics of war are considered and how he justified that. The rest of the narrative is shown through interviews with the people who came along for the ride as he went up against the government to try and do what he felt was the right thing.
After presenting the series of events that led up to his change of heart and decision to release the papers, the film almost turns into a classic thriller as we see potential jeopardy involved in trying to get the papers out piece by piece, whilst the government are throwing injunctions onto the 17 different newspapers that are trying to get the sections published.
Richard Nixon provides comic relief that breaks the tension through sound bites from his taped conversations in the White House. There’s a great example of this with audio of him saying he “we gotta get this son of a bitch” that’s combined with an archive news report of the official White House statement saying there is no vengeance towards Ellsberg.
Having watched the film it’s baffling how this isn’t a better known part of the history of the lead up to the end of the war. The outcome changed the relationship between the government and the media permanently and it’s still seen as one of the most important 1st Amendment law cases, cited every day in trials. The film shows that the release of the papers and Ellsberg’s actions contributed to the beginning of Nixon’s paranoia and were precursor to his decisions regarding Watergate. Ellsberg himself is viewed as one of the first major whistleblowers and there is a great quote in the film that his actions were a “decision by a public official to give priority to conscience as compared to career”. This is an important historical story that combines action and an extreme personal journey, so if any one of those factors peaks your interest I would really recommend seeking this documentary out.
The Most Dangerous Man in America is one of the 12 documentaries on the Oscar Documentary Feature shortlist and will be released theatrically in February 2010.