The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
Directed by Judith Ehrlich, Rick Goldsmith. Narrated by Daniel Ellsberg. (2010, NR, 93 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 30, 2010
It's a bit surprising that a documentary with such an unwieldy title offers such a streamlined and resonant account of history. Somewhat worrisome is the initial realization that Ellsberg narrates the film, which calls into question the film's objectivity – though really, who's better to recount the tale? Even viewers such as myself, who remember the events and consider themselves well-versed on the topic, will find much in this documentary they didn't already know. Fascinating is the account of how the 7,000-page secret Pentagon report on the history of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, with its conclusion about the unwinnability of that war, was siphoned out of the office by Ellsberg in small bundles of pages for nighttime photocopying sessions that lasted for months. Ehrlich and Goldsmith's film clarifies exactly what the Pentagon Papers stated and why the information they contained was so instrumental in turning public opinion against the war. These days, Ellsberg may be better remembered for the Watergate plumbers' raid on his psychiatrist's office which, instead of providing Nixon with incriminatory information about Ellsberg, became one of the linchpins that brought down his administration. Most Dangerous Man also offers a sterling example of courageous journalism in practice as injunctions shut down publication of the papers first in The New York Times, then The Washington Post, then another 15 newspapers which stepped into the breach. Mostly, however, Most Dangerous Man is an enlightening portrait of one man's moral evolution. Through the years, I've known little about exactly who Daniel Ellsberg is, his role in government, and his hard-won coming-out as a dove. A brilliant young war thinker, Ellsberg's path from high-level Pentagon strategist trying to curtail the bombing from within to (as dubbed by Henry Kissinger) the "most dangerous man in America" for stealing government secrets and publishing them in the newspaper is enlightening and inspiring. What is not inspiring, however, is this documentary's conventional storytelling methods. The filmmakers use lots of talking heads, dramatically filmed historical photographs, spooky music, and re-enactments to achieve the kind of tension common in an Errol Morris documentary. Most grievous is the photocopying motif with its flashes of light and dark and ominous music (by Blake Leyh). Still, it is impossible to hear Ellsberg's plaint that most people read the Pentagon Papers without retaining any of the information it exposed and not think of the present. It's why we keep fighting the same battles and making the same foreign-policy mistakes decade after decade; it's also what makes this film more relevant than ever.