The Most Dangerous Man in America:
Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
This straightforward history lesson casts Daniel Ellsberg and his
leaked Pentagon Papers as the first shot in the war that brought down
the Nixon regime.
Sept 1, 2009
By Chris Barsanti
For movie details, please click here.
After seeing Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's earnest, smart
documentary about Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
controversy, viewers not old enough when it unfolded might wonder why
the story has played such a minor role in popular histories of the
era. This informative account deserves more than the very limited
theatrical release it's likely to get.
Ellsberg's story (which he narrates large parts of) is similar to
that of many intellectuals recruited into Washington's cadre of
wunderkinds only to find themselves with the blood of Vietnam all
over their hands. Brilliant and competitive, Ellsberg was a top
policy analyst in the military-industrial complex more interested in
game theory and puzzle-solving than waging war. Symbolically, the
Gulf of Tonkin incident erupted on his very first day at the Pentagon
under Robert McNamara.
From then on, Ellsberga lean and professorial type with a David
Strathairn gravity to himwas propelled deeper and deeper into
planning of the war he later came to despise. A true-blue
anti-communist and former Marine, Ellsberg was no desk wonk, but
headed into the South Vietnamese deltas and jungles to dig up data
firsthand, even if it meant going into actual combat. Ellsberg
ultimately learned enough about the warparticularly how badly it was
going and how inhumanely it was being foughtthat he couldn't ignore
his doubts any longer.
Though their visuals tend toward hokey reenactments and no-frills
talking-head dialogue, the filmmakers do an astounding job relating
how Ellsberg brought the Pentagon Papers (which laid out in plain
language how the Pentagon and White House had been lying through
their teeth to the public about the war) to light. From smuggling the
thousands of top-secret documents out of the Rand Corporation, to the
breathtaking race to publish them in more newspapers than the
government could get injunctions against (vitriolic audiotapes reveal
a vicious Nixon raging in full splutter, "We've got to get this son
of a bitch!"), it's a thrilling journalistic drama, easily the equal
of Deep Throat.
If nothing else, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg
and the Pentagon Papers (the title comes from Henry Kissinger)
strongly makes the point that without Ellsberg's breach in the dam,
Nixon might never have been paranoid enough to get his team of
plumbers to raid Ellsberg's doctor's office, which laid the
groundwork for their later break-ins at the Watergate.
Although visually a minimally budgeted public television-style
documentary (if only Errol Morris had wanted to tell Ellsberg's story
as a follow-up to The Fog of War), The Most Dangerous Man offers a
brisk and eye-opening approach to recent history.