The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

PENTAGON PAPERS TRIALAt the end of the press screening I attended of “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” I heard another attendee say “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.” Translation: “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”  I could not have said it better.  We had just seen an excellent documentary whose background involved a president twisting facts in order to start a war, a war which was unwinnable due to the fact that the enemy had too much of a “home court” advantage, and into which more and more American troops were poured while the powers that be advocated torture.  No, this was not a documentary about recent and current history, but  about the Vietnam War.

“The Most Dangerous Man in America…” is jaw dropping, thoroughly compelling and has been nominated for an Oscar.  For me it was a real education.  I am amazed, and a bit ashamed, that it has taken me nearly 40 years to learn about Daniel Ellsberg.  On the other hand “The Most Dangerous Man…” involves an event that began in 1971 when I was only nine years old.

Daniel Ellsberg was a Pentagon official and Vietnam War strategist who from personal, on the ground, experience was dubious about a U.S . victory in Vietnam. While working for the U.S. government-owned Rand Corporation, he worked on and read a top secret study on U.S. decision making in Vietnam, a 7,000 page document, later to be known as the Pentagon Papers.  The information essentially said that the Vietnam War was based on lies, was not winnable and had been kept going by five American presidents in order to save face.  Ellsberg, underwent a radical change of heart sending him from hawk to dove.  He proceeded, at great personal and professional risk, to leak the entire 7,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.  The Nixon administration went all the way to the Supreme Court to try to prevent the publication of the Pentagon Papers but lost its case.  Ellsberg was later tried for espionage, facing a possible 115 year prison sentence.

Ellsberg himself narrates the documentary talking about his life and life change in a manner which is straight forward and, at points, quite emotional. “The Most Dangerous Man…” has been brilliantly edited and kept at a steady, lively pace through an intriguing visual design that illustrates Ellsberg’s points while keeping the narrative tight.  The  filmmakers integrate modern day interviews with stills, news footage, recreations and multiple images in a manner that is creative, unique and intelligent.  For example, Ellsburg tells us what was really going on behind the scenes with a certain person (seen in stills) and then we see footage of the person making a statement before the cameras that we now know is blatantly false.  The filmmakers also use stylized dramatic recreations of certain events, very reminiscent of the work of Errol Morris, at two points even using animation, all of which illustrate and enhance what Ellsburg is telling us.  It all flows so smoothly you can almost miss it, which is what good editing and design should accomplish.  I actually saw the film a second time just to pay attention to these aspects.

Throughout we see Ellsberg go from a man in his twenties to one nearing his eighties.  Although he changes physically, Ellsberg’s moral compass stays the same.  A shot toward the film’s end shows him being loaded into a police wagon during a protest, still a man willing to stand up for his beliefs, or, as one interviewee describes him, a man who “…tries to do the highest right under the circumstances.”

“The Most Dangerous man in America: Daniel Ellsburg and the Pentagon Papers” is now playing at Cinema Village in New York.

“The Most Dangerous man in America: Daniel Ellsburg and the Pentagon Papers,”

directors Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, 2009,  The Independent Television Service, 93 minutes

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About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on February 18, 2010, in Documentary, Film Forum. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I did not know about this film until I read your blog, so thank you! When the Watergate story broke, my father followed it compulsively. He considered Ellsberg, Woodward and Bernstein heroes. So, naturally that’s when I decided I’d be a journalist when I grew up. There was a huge spike in J-school enrollments at that time… a time when being a journalist meant working hard enough to find the truth and then having the courage to report it.

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