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

"How a guy with a Xerox machine made Washington very nervous."
4 stars

The star and subject of ‘The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers’ now looks like a quiet, friendly grandfather. But nearly half a century ago, his actions helped topple a president and raised important issues about what the phrases “freedom of speech” and “national security” really mean.

Nearly 40 years ago, Daniel Ellsberg, who is now 78, shocked the nation when he leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press at the height of the Vietnam War. The papers, a 7,000-page history of American involvement from 1945 to 1968 commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, revealed that that many of the stated reasons for the war were dubious and that the chance of achieving a victory were negligible.

The study was so secret that even President Lyndon B. Johnson didn’t know it was being conducted.

Like many whistleblowers before or after him, Ellsberg seemed like an unlikely person for the task. Throughout his life, he’s been a staunch anti-Communist. He was a former officer in the Marine Corps and as an analyst at the Pentagon and for the RAND Corporation, he helped make plans for bombing runs on North Vietnam.

As the film points out, long doubts about the effectiveness of the war had been running through his mind almost from beginning of his career as a military analyst. His first day on the job was actually August 4, 1966, the day of the second Gulf of Tonkin incident. When he was on the ground in Vietnam from 1965 to 1967, he recalled a series of incidents that indicated it would take more than bombing to stop the Viet Cong.

When he saw people back in the States willing to go to jail because they thought the war was wrong, he wondered why he was still walking free.

While the story of Ellsberg’s leaking of the papers he had in his safe at RAND to the New York Times is well-documented elsewhere, directors Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith tell Ellsberg’s story vividly enough to retain the urgency it had in 1971. They also demonstrate why his story has plenty of relevance for today.

While the film is obviously sympathetic to Ellsberg, it reveals some fascinating sides to him that previous accounts haven’t touched. He recalls how a tragic childhood accident made him leery of authority, and the incident has influenced much of his adult life. We also see him playing piano and performing magic tricks in front of his grandchildren. He hardly seems to the type of fellow who’d needlessly rock the boat.

Thanks to some ingenious editing, "The Most Dangerous Man in American" never feels like a dry history lecture. As Ellsberg describes briefing McNamara before the latter blatantly lies to reporters, the film shows both of them emerging from the plane before McNamara speaks. The recreations are simple but effective. The crude animated sequences actually work because they make what the talking heads say easier to grasp.

The film also includes several damning conversations from the Watergate tapes where President Richard Nixon plots to destroy Ellsberg and, worse, seriously considers dropping nukes on Hanoi.
One wonders what sort of victory could be achieved if the city was reduced to a radioactive wasteland. It’s not like you can claim the territory once it’s been destroyed. It’s scary to think that National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger was the voice of reason in these conversations.

The film also includes testimony from Watergate figures John Dean and Egil Krogh, a leader of the Watergate “Plumbers.” Ellsberg and his co-conspirator Tony Russo wound being exonerated during their trial in part because the Plumbers had broken into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. The White House also offered the job of director of the FBI to the judge during the trial. As Krogh points out, the White House had lost any sense of right or wrong. It’s fascinating to note that he and Ellsberg are now friends.

The film ends with footage of Ellsberg continuing his activism. While he may not generate headlines the way he used to, Ellsberg still speaks out against what he sees as wrong and for people, who like him, reveal when public trust has been violated. He may not be saying anything new, but that doesn’t mean his warnings should be ignored.

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originally posted: 02/09/10 00:49:42
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Traverse City Film Festival For more in the 2010 Traverse City Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/19/13 Annie G Hard to follow, but an important film to see. 4 stars
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  DVD: 20-Jul-2010


  DVD: 20-Jul-2010

Directed by
  Judith Ehrlich
  Rick Goldsmith

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