THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
First Run Features
Reviewed for MovieWeb by Harvey Karten
Directed by: Judith Ehrlich, Rick Goldsmith
Written By: Judith Ehrlich, Michael Chandler, Lawrence Lerew, Rick Goldsmith, based on "Secrets" and "Papers on the War" by Daniel Ellsberg
Cast: Daniel Ellsberg, Patricia Ellsberg, Tony Russo, Howard Zinn, Hedrick Smith, John Dean
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 1/21/10
Opens: January 29, 2010
In a key segment of this gut-punching, superbly edited documentary, we hear that Daniel Ellsberg's defense team made sure that few if any middle-aged people would serve on the jury to hear government charges against the man. The reason? Many, probably most of these folks had probably ignored the call of principles in order to advance their careers. Ellsberg was not of this sort. He gave up career and friends, although not family, by blowing the whistle on a whole set of lies that successive presidential administrations had been telling the people. (The government lies? What a surprise!)
Stop people on the street and ask them this: Suppose you found out that a high government official, trusted by officials as high as the President and given security clearance, stole top secret documents from a confidential file. He then sent those documents to the press, particularly the country's most influential newspaper, the New York Times, papers that he would never have had access to had he not be given security clearance. What would you think of the fellow? Doubtless the majority of people on the street would tell you that such a guy is a traitor, a deceiver, a snake, someone who took advantage of his privileged position to trash the very administration that appointed him.
Hmmm. One wonders whether those who see this documentary would agree that Daniel Ellsberg should have been jailed for a long time, particularly since the high-level papers he released affected not only his own country but an enemy nation with which the U.S. was involved in a major war. After seeing "The Most Dangerous Man in America," I'm inclined to be not so sanguine about making Ellsberg a hero: I wonder if that's your view as well. Please get back to me on the forum with your commentary.
The story is this. Ellsberg, who had military credentials as a former first lieutenant in the U.S. Marines where he spent the happiest years of his life, was a brilliant man, a Ph.D. who had a position in the U.S. administration as a war planner. While presidents from Eisenhower to Kennedy, from Johnson to Nixon, repeatedly told the American people that the Vietnam War was, first, one for which U.S. involvement would be limited to an advisory capacity. Later Presidents Johnson and Nixon lied about the illegal bombing of Cambodia and Laos and covered up the atrocities being committed by our own side (of course the other side was at least as guilty, but we're supposed to be above that sort of thing.)
Let me cite a parallel, imaginative situation. Let's say you are ardently pro-Israel, a high official of that country's government with access to confidential documents. You discover a paper indicating that the Prime Minister and his cabinet have no intention whatever of giving Palestinians an independent state ever, though the government repeatedly blames the other side for the lack of progress. Would you be a hero or a traitor for turning a shekel?
Hey! It's to the enormous credit of this film that such questions can be evoked in the audience!
So when you watch this picture, think of that overriding question. Meanwhile Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, who direct this wonderful doc, make clear their view that Ellsberg is a hero, though Henry Kissinger dubbed him "the most dangerous man in America." During the early seventies while the Vietnam was hot and heavy with over half a million American soldiers in that godforsaken country, Ellsberg stole secret documents that indicated a cover-up of atrocities with wildly overoptimistic statements about American progress. He Xeroxed 7000 pages-and remember that Xerography was in an infant stage in the early seventies-delivered the docs to the NYTimes which printed the report until the newspaper was enjoined by the court. The papers were delivered to one paper after another, one step ahead of injunctions, until the whole country knew that the war was lost. Nixon, who compulsively and self-destructively taped all his conversations in the oval office, let loose with obscenities about both Dr. Ellsberg and the New York Times-and Vietnam as well-all this information leading to humorous segments of the film.
In addition to the talking heads that include his wife Patricia and son Robert, journalist Tom Oliphant, historian Howard Zinn, Washington bureau chief for the NY Times Max Frankel and Republic Congressman Pete McCloskey, considerable time is spent on archival films, including graphic detail on the saturation bombing of that small country, the atrocities on the ground, a few funny animations when archival work was not available. We're told in the epilogue that two million Vietnamese and fifty-eight thousand Americans were killed in this unnecessary war.
So why is this film, seemingly dated with facts know by everyone middle-aged and above, shown now? Obvious parallels with the Iraq War exist. 'nuff said. Good show.
Unrated. 93 minutes. © 2010 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Onlinefp