Oscar-nominated Daniel Ellsberg documentary shows how one man exposed corruption at America's highest levels of power 

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.

Vanderbilt University professor Bruce Oppenheimer will provide an introduction for Friday night's opening screening.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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