Daniel Ellsberg
I am not a crook! … But I’ve got a report about others who might be.

Theatrical Release Date: 02/19/2010
Directors: Judith Ehrlich & Rick Goldsmith

“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-bitch 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.