Daniel Ellsberg, profile in courage
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
Directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith
Starring Daniel Ellsberg, Patricia Ellsberg, Tony Russo and Mike Gravel
Goes well with: Why We Fight, All the President's Men, The Fog of War
It was back in 1971 when The New York Times became the first newspaper to publish the Pentagon Papers, opening the door to a new wave of anti-war sentiment and government distrust. President Nixon went to court to stop the presses, the first time the feds tried to quash freedom of the press so publicly since the Civil War. The papers brought to light a standard operating procedure of lying to the American people about the Vietnam War, and it made a household name of Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the documents to the press.
It was an important event, but it was almost 40 years ago, and it doesn't mean all that much for most of us who aren't approaching what passes for retirement these days. But Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, is considerably more than just a history lesson. It's immediately evident how similar the circumstances of the last decade feel to those described in the film. Ellsberg, who sat down for lengthy interviews and who essentially narrates the film, is articulate and interesting, a solitary citizen standing up against what he perceived to be a corrupt government acting unethically and dishonestly, if not illegally.
Ellsberg was a former Marine who worked directly under Defense Secretary and lying blunderer Robert McNamara. He was part of the military-industrial complex, body and soul. After his stint in government, he worked for the RAND Corporation and contributed to the Pentagon Papers, the top-secret report of U.S. involvement in Indochina that had been commissioned by McNamara, which essentially outed the way the White House had spun the war to the public through a series of misrepresentations, obfuscations and bald-faced lies. And although Ellsberg was, at that point, a cog in the machine, his views on the war were dramatically a'changin'. Somewhere amid meeting young men willing to go to jail to avoid being sent into combat, the anti-war views of his soon-to-be-second wife Patricia (also interviewed extensively in the film) and the knowledge that his employers knew they were spilling American blood and spending American treasure for all the wrong reasons, Ellsberg decided he'd had enough. Actually, he decided everyone had had enough. And that's why he smuggled out the report section by section and Xeroxed it, with the help of RAND Corp. co-worker and eventual fellow defendant Anthony Russo and Ellsberg's own children, before handing it over to the Times and several other prominent newspapers.
The film goes into all of this in considerably more detail, filling in a vindictive Nixon's point of view with excerpts from Oval Office audio tapes and interviews with people like White House Counsel John Dean and advisor Egil “Bud” Krogh—White House operatives also broke into Ellsberg's therapist's office in the hopes of finding some dirt. Other interviews include late historian Howard Zinn and former Sen. (and 2008 presidential candidate) Mike Gravel, who had the entire document entered into the Senate record. The interviews are all interesting, but it's Ellsberg's determination to expose the truth that's really inspiring to watch. It's also a must-see for journalists, because the pre-Internet First Amendment standoff between the media and the White House is astounding.
It's easy to see why The Most Dangerous Man lost the Best Documentary Oscar to The Cove. The winner plays like a thriller, and much of this one is standard talking-head stuff. But the vibe of the early '70s plays out just like the first part of the new century, with soulless politicians lying to us all the way to Iraq. It's as though Dick Cheney took a page out of the Pentagon Papers playbook and just assumed there wouldn't be another Daniel Ellsberg to call bullshit. And maybe he was right. Last time I checked, that war was still going on.
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