By: Garth Brody
May 03, 2010
You all owe your freedom to Daniel Ellsberg.
Well, that may be a bit of an overstatement, but it is approximately
the way you will feel after seeing "The Most Dangerous Man in
America," a documentary about the man who took the Pentagon Papers
from top secret to front page. With wide critical acclaim following
its limited September release last year, the film was nominated for
Best Documentary Feature at the 82 Academy Awards (it lost to the
dolphin-hunting exposé "The Cove").
"The Most Dangerous Man in America" takes its title from a Henry
Kissinger quotation describing Ellsberg, but the combined efforts of
directors Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, as well as the titular
subject who actually narrates his own story make it clear that
the film was named with tongues mostly in cheeks.
Then again, when the movie isn't convincing you how important
Ellsberg's contributions to our democracy have been, it is reminding
you what an incredible badass he is. In one of his many interview
segments, which cleverly splits his voice between narrative and
personal, he affirms that his time in the Marine Corps constituted
"the happiest days of [his] professional career."
Besides commanding a platoon of soldiers, Ellsberg earned a Ph.D. in
economics from Harvard before working for the military-industrial
RAND corporation; he is a best-of-the-best, top-of-the-class,
all-American man. He even looks like Paul Newman; in one anecdote, he
nervously returns to the theaters to see "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid".
He also has a conscience, which is the part of the story everybody
already knows. It's also the part that the film rather monotonously
hammers home. This might have been more troublesome if it weren't so
compelling. Ellsberg's genuine pathos shines through as the movie's
highlight in his interviews.
In particular, he moves himself and by no stretch of the
imagination, the audience to tears when he defines his life's story
as consisting of two chapters: before and after witnessing a 1969
speech by Randy Kehler advising young men that going to prison is
more conscionable than cooperating with the draft. The camera pulls
back, and Ellsberg is sitting across the table from an aged Kehler,
The rest is history; Ellsberg copies hundreds upon hundreds of pages
of incriminating top secret documentation concerning the United
States' covert and unethical action in Vietnam, leaks it to
newspapers around the country, defies President Nixon's orders to
desist, gets alternately lambasted and lauded on national news, leads
the FBI on a weeks-long manhunt, and finally disgraces Nixon in a
monumental debacle of a mistrial. It makes for a gripping documentary
thriller, even if some of its most critical moments are played out in
puzzlingly low-quality, albeit charming, Flash animations.
Ellsberg lost his mother and sister as a teenager when his father
fell asleep at the wheel of the family car. He spent the better part
of his life trying to right the wrongs of leaders in similarly
precarious situations, and the connection is made tangible by "The
Most Dangerous Man in America." It may be one-sided, but as the film
so poignantly proves, there is sometimes no alternative.
Garth Brody can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.