Oscar-nominated Daniel Ellsberg documentary shows how one man exposed
corruption at America's highest levels of power
By Ron Wynn
Published on March 17, 201
Once upon a time, a man leaked secrets to expose government's
failings, not to protect them. Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's
Oscar-nominated documentary The Most Dangerous Man In America
Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers unfurls a remarkable story of
personal sacrifice and risk that played a pivotal role in both ending
the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon's presidency.
Ellsberg's name is almost a footnote today, but in 1971, a national
debate raged whether the onetime hawk was a patriot or a traitor. A
longtime Defense Department analyst and insider turned anti-war
activist, Ellsberg had become despondent about his role in
formulating war policy. He felt personally responsible for
escalations in troop involvement and bombings on behalf of a conflict
he increasingly felt couldn't be won.
The insider had long known about a secret Pentagon survey that
documented the history of American involvement in Vietnam dating back
to the Truman administration. The 78-chapter, 7,000-page report
contradicted the public stances of multiple presidents. It showed the
American public had continually been misled about the way the war was
being conducted. It also concluded that the conflict couldn't be won
unless America was prepared to become a permanent occupying force in
that part of the world.
Risking prison, or worse, Ellsberg Xeroxed and subsequently leaked
the contents to 17 newspapers and media organizations, as well as
selected senators and representatives. The film brilliantly documents
the move's vast impact through incisive interviews with Ellsberg and
a host of key participants, plus excerpts from news reports, Nixon
administration tapes and other sources.
For anyone who's grown up in the post-9/11 climate of iron-fisted
government secrecy, The Most Dangerous Man is bound to look like a
broadcast from an alternate universe. In this other world, the
Supreme Court comes down on the side of newspapers and other media
over the concerns of national security, while the government
sabotages its own case against Ellsberg with its all-thumbs covert
ops including a break-in of Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office.
At the same time, Ehrlich and Goldsmith don't ignore the story's
human element. They show Ellsberg's gradual conversion from a true
believer an ex-Marine infantry commander who truly believed he was
battling communist aggression to a disillusioned opponent convinced
the government was betraying American values (and worse, American
troops). To Ellsberg's great disappointment, the papers' leak didn't
prevent Nixon from being overwhelmingly re-elected or spur the
immediate end of the war.
Though their position is clear, Ehrlich and Goldsmith don't simply
discount the Nixon administration's opposition without giving it
ample scrutiny. They present legitimate disagreement among legal
scholars whether Ellsberg violated national security, while showing
that not all his friends supported his decision. Ellsberg comes
across as so convinced of his position that he was prepared to let
those around him fellow employees, even his own children get
sucked into the vortex.
For all its value as history, The Most Dangerous Man is perhaps most
fascinating as a document of the media landscape before the Internet,
cable news and the blogosphere. It was just 40 years ago, but
dinosaurs might as well be walking the earth: The Big Three networks
rule television, and The New York Times and Washington Post set the
news agenda. Equally nostalgic is their combined sense of debt to the
public good. When the Times and Post were temporarily restrained from
publication, other papers such as The Boston Globe and Chicago
Sun-Times stepped in, as well as CBS, NBC and ABC. An interview with
Walter Cronkite also had enormous impact.
Other than recent footage of Ellsberg's participation in contemporary
anti-war protests, Ehrlich and Goldsmith are careful to keep the
film's emphasis on the past rather than the present. But although
they never broach the subject of the war on terror or the conflicts
in Iraq and Afghanistan to Ellsberg, contemporary audiences can draw
their own conclusions such as whether it's a downward trajectory
from Daniel Ellsberg to Scooter Libby.
The Most Dangerous Man in America
by Ian Forbes
"The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon
Papers" isn't just a ridiculously long title, it's a documentary
about … well, you read the title right? For those of you not up on
your Vietnam era history, Daniel Ellsberg was the man who leaked the
Pentagon Papers (a report concerning U.S. government escalation of
the conflict) to the press and turned public/political sentiment
against the war for good.
The film chronicles his time at the Rand Corporation, a think tank
that had a hand in Vietnam war planning, where Ellsberg became
intimately familiar with, and at the forefront of, U.S. military
strategies. He quickly rose to prominence as a proponent of the war
and believed that his assistance could guide America to victory.
After meeting an anti-war activist who would later become his wife,
and seeing firsthand the reality of the Vietnam war, Ellsberg changed
his stance and tried to make it clear that our best option was to end
the fighting, as there seemed to be no way to win without huge
additional casualties on both sides.
When working from the inside failed to make many inroads towards
removal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, Ellsberg and others set about to
release a top secret report (the aforementioned Pentagon Papers).
They hoped that divulging the truth about American involvement (when
it began, why we were still there) would force the President and his
advisors to stop continuing on with the war.
The documentary is largely composed of Ellsberg himself, as he
narrates, is the primary interviewee and much of the film is based on
his book. Joined together with interviews of other people he
conspired with in leaking the Pentagon Papers to multiple newspapers
in America, these are buoyed by good archival footage. However, the
crowning achievement of the film are the excerpts taken from
President Nixon and members of his staff. Conversations in the White
House are recorded and eventually made public, in this case much to
the chagrin of Nixon supporters.
The quotes that come forth portray a President so hellbent on saving
face that he ignores all manners of laws or justice. His
administration tried to block newspapers from running the story for
reasons of national security and it eventually wound up as a case in
front of the Supreme Court (where they ultimately decided that the
government could not stop the press from disseminating materials,
even classified ones, that showed misconduct by officials).
Nixon is quoted as saying about Ellsberg "Screw the court case! Let's
convict the son-of-a-***** in the press! That's the way it's done!"
His comments regarding how he'd like to proceed with the Vietnam war
are far more inflammatory (he suggested nuking them) and the film
clearly portrays his administration, and the ones leading up to it,
in a less than bright light.
Now, politics aside, the quality of the film making is quite good.
The story is fascinating (I only knew of the bare bones outline of it
all beforehand) and directors Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith do a
nice job of keeping the film on point. However, I was a little amazed
to find out that the running time is only 94 minutes, as it felt much
closer to something like 2 hours with various points at which the
story could end. Though, as frustrating as multiple ending syndrome
can be, the information delivered in the extra segments turned out to
be valuable and interesting.
It would have been nice to see a few more detractors of Ellberg's
actions, as the documentary plays out a bit too much like hero
worship rather than depiction of the time period (one thing about
America is that we rarely all agree with one another). Still, "The
Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon
Papers" proves to be an enlightening and fascinating film well worth
watching by those who lived through the events and those of us who
should know more about them. A 4 out of 5, I'd agree with the Academy
that this deserves to be nominated as one of the best documentaries
of the last year and that audiences interested in politics and
history should seek it out.
Ellsberg at SLO filmfest
The man who leaked the Pentagon papers will attend screening of film
about the experience
By Sarah Linn | firstname.lastname@example.org
Mar. 19, 2010
For the Watergate generation, the name Daniel Ellsberg carries special weight.
"Here was a guy who was an insider who was able to confirm what
everybody knew," documentary filmmaker Judith Ehrlich said. "He
provided the seal of approval for the progressive front on the Vietnam War."
Ellsberg, 78, is the subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary "The
Most Dangerous Man in the World: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon
Papers." He's scheduled to appear tonight at the San Luis Obispo
International Film Festival alongside Ehrlich.
The Berkeley-based filmmaker first encountered Ellsberg while
researching her documentary, "The Good War and Those Who Refused to
Fight It," about conscientious objectors during World War II.
"I took him out for breakfast," Ehrlich said, "and we sat through
lunch while Dan told me about World War II. I filled out two legal pads."
That experience encouraged Ehrlich and her partner Rick Goldsmith to
turn their lens on Ellsberg. A former U.S. Marine Corps officer and
government adviser, Ellsberg first gained access to the classified
documents known as the Pentagon Papers while working at the RAND
Corp., a think tank. He copied them with the help of former colleague
Through 1970, Ellsberg tried unsuccessfully to persuade a few
senators known for their opposition to the Vietnam War to release the
papers on the Senate floor. When those efforts failed, he leaked the
documents to New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan.
On Sunday, June 13, 1971, The Times published the first of nine
excerpts and commentaries on the 7,000-page collection revealing
that five American presidents had purposely misled the American
public about Vietnam. For instance, the documents showed that
President Lyndon B. Johnson had decided to expand the war while
promising in 1964, "We seek no wider war."
As public protests mounted, the Nixon administration requested a
court order muzzling The Times. Ellsberg, then in hiding and wanting
to ensure that information reached the public, leaked the Pentagon
Papers to The Washington Post and 17 other newspapers.
Days later, Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska entered 4,100 pages of the
documents into the public record. "There's never been a wave of civil
disobedience like that in any century, in any country," Ellsberg
He and Russo were charged with espionage, theft, conspiracy and other
crimes, carrying a total maximum sentence of 115 years. All charges
were later dismissed.
"Everyone took incredible risks to get that information out," Ehrlich
said. "The combination of it makes a political thriller that you
couldn't make up. It's all true."
Ellsberg's story has inspired several books and at least one movie,
2003's "The Pentagon Papers." According to Ellsberg, however, "The
Most Dangerous Man in America" is the first film to get it right.
Directed by Ehrlich and Goldmith, who previously garnered an Oscar
nomination for "Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the
American Press," the documentary combines interviews, animation,
re-enactments and historical network news footage. Ellsberg himself
serves as the narrator of the film.
"We're getting an amazing reaction," Ehrlich said. "The story really
resonates with the period that we're in now. You can't help but say,
'Gee, that sounds familiar.' "
Like the filmmaker, Ellsberg sees obvious parallels between the
Vietnam War and the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As in Vietnam, he said, the chances for victory in the Middle East are slim.
Ellsberg hopes that the documentary will inspire a new wave of
"It really does have the power to encourage people to tell the
truth," he said. "The more people see it, the more chance we have of
getting out some more Pentagon Papers."
Story of Pentagon Papers familiar but still dramatic
By MIKE HALE
March 19, 2010
As "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the
Pentagon Papers" begins, a sonorous voice describes American actions
during the Vietnam War. It sounds a bit like that of Peter Coyote, a
frequent narrator of documentaries with a liberal bent. Then the
voice says "I," and you realize that it's Daniel Ellsberg, narrating
his own story.
There's no doubt where "Dangerous" stands when it comes to Ellsberg,
the man who leaked the secret history of the war, known as the
Pentagon Papers, to newspapers, including The New York Times. On the
spectrum from heroic patriot to craven traitor, this detailed,
clearly told and persuasive film, directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick
Goldsmith, is firmly on the side of heroic. It conscientiously notes
the viewpoints of those who believe that Ellsberg betrayed his
country. But when the two sides are represented by the formidably
intelligent, reasoned, now grandfatherly tones of Ellsberg on the one
hand, and the taped, heavily bleeped rants of President Richard M.
Nixon on the other, it's not much of a contest.
One problem the filmmakers have, in fact, is that the narrative of
Ellsberg's disillusionment and of the subsequent First Amendment
battle after he leaked the papers is so familiar, and its lessons
regarding government malfeasance so accepted, that it has become an
official story in its own right. Ehrlich and Goldsmith try to jack up
the tension with moody Errol Morris-style shots of telephones, safes
and briefcases, but they're just distracting.
Yet there's still sufficient drama in the details to keep you hooked
like Ellsberg's account of the many nights of surreptitious
photocopying required to get the 7,000-page study out into the world,
or James Goodale's memories of how, as general counsel of The Times,
he pushed the newspaper's management to publish it.
As the documentary progresses, the parallels between the events it
describes and subsequent behavior by American administrations during
conflicts in Central America and the Middle East are mostly left
unspoken. Many viewers, however, will come away with a depressing
sense of history repeating itself, and Ellsberg sounds that note
himself, asking why the lessons of Vietnam and Watergate seemed to
fade so quickly.
The filmmakers, meanwhile, concentrate on their portrait of Ellsberg,
who emerges as a complex and difficult man whose principles, whether
you agree with them or not, can't be denied.