The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

GreenCineStaff's picture

Reviewer: Erin Donovan
Rating (out of 5): ****

A fascinating theme emerges early on in Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's Oscar-nominated documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers: that the same circular thinking and one-upsmanship games inevitably will overtake hyper-insulated circles once their belief system come under fire. Whether they be grassroots activist groups, major media companies, the Department of Defense or the White House -- the wheels come off with striking similarity and lead to some fantastic collapses.

Daniel Ellsberg began as a researcher in the State department for the Johnson administration on the day of Gulf of Tonkin incident. A true Cold War believer, his department was tasked with compiling evidence of violence against Americans in the region that would enable White House policy advisers to construct an explanation for why the war on Communism was about to be expanded. But after years of amping up reports of petty criminal acts and masking false alarms with his credibility, Ellsberg enlisted in the Marines to gain a perspective on Vietnam he felt he wasn't getting it through high-level security intelligence briefings. He was shocked to learn that military strategists had invented investigative ground campaigns out of whole cloth and the sum of the war consisted of dropping millions of pounds of bombs on an underdeveloped nation. Upon his return he came to realize that the combination of Congress' deference to the Executive branch and battling egos within by then-President Nixon's team meant the war could conceivably go on until the United States ran out of bombs or the American people chose to stop it.

With the aid of his two young children, Ellsberg began copying a 7,000 page document that would come to be known as "the Pentagon Papers." The Pentagon Papers detailed some of the exaggerations that led up to the war and expressed defense officials' concerns with the lack of effectiveness a prolonged military engagement in the region would ever have. Ellsberg then distributed the documents to sympathetic members of Congress, major newspapers and reporters from the evening news networks. Nixon was enraged and worse yet, made even more paranoid that Ellsberg's betrayal was potentially just a drop in the bucket and feared more dissenters with inside knowledge would go public en masse at any moment.

ellsberg.jpg When charging Ellsberg (and everyone who had apparently ever met him) with espionage didn't pan out, Nixon appointed a special task force to smear him in the press. Among other things, the team broke into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office, stole his medical files and attempted to use them to paint him as a schizophrenic. This would be the same team that would later be involved with the Watergate robbery and would lead to Congress passing articles of impeachment and Nixon's eventual resignation. In this case, the story being both the crime and the cover up, Nixon's team excessively documented all of these acts -- going so far as to sign his initials next to which smear tactics were approved, with the caveat of needing to be totally untraceable.

In the film, Ehrlich and Goldsmith take a three-pronged approach to showing that its subject matter is far more cumbersome than merely one man's romantic quest to end a war. Dangerous Man is part re-chronicling of the events leading up to and management of the Vietnam war (a topic of apparent ceaseless interest, if little introspection, to the Baby Boomer generation), a biography of a man who upended a life of privilege after making a 180-degree ideological turn (hint: he met a girl) and a somewhat strained attempt to give the Ellsberg story a contemporary context about standing up to power in a time marked by great uncertainty and indifference.

Ellsberg (who narrates the film) is the biggest hinderance to that last element. He thrashes against much of the complexity of his own biography and its clear from the archive footage and his current interviews that he sees himself as a creature of near mythic nobility -- failing to mention that ego and having a rich wife to fall back on probably also figure strongly into his legacy. But the filmmakers artfully (and kindly) guide the story back to providing context for the time, pushing the supporting cast of Ellsberg's mind into the forefront.

It's the absence of said context that renders most documentaries on this period unwatchable to anyone with the clarity of mind to know social change never happens based solely on the good intentions of a few wonderful individuals. The filmmakers delight in showing the role chaos and animosity played in ending the Vietnam war: feuds between the State department and the White House that left staffers bitter and unsupervised, the academics within conservative think tanks trying to out-leak one another once it had come into vogue to have a conscience and the tantalizing bit that the New York Times had planned on backing down from publishing the classified Pentagon Papers -- deciding only to pull the trigger when they were about to be scooped by the Washington Post.

There are playful moments in The Most Dangerous Man as well: a then-junior Senator from Alaska Mike Gravel recounts the logistical nightmare of trading off a 7,000-page document before the internet; Howard Zinn (his interview recorded just days before his death) chuckling about his years as a member of a poorly organized affinity group with Ellsberg and Noam Chomsky; and Anthony Russo describing the difficulty in xeroxing a felonious tome while Ellsberg kept accidentally summoning the local police by setting off his home security system.

DVD extras include extra interviews with Naomi Wolf and Woody Harrelson, outtakes from ‘the Nixon Tapes', filmmaker bios and a trailer gallery.

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