The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (First Run, PG)

It’s essentially a filmed ethics lesson, a wake-up call for anyone who thinks we should just trust our government to do what’s right.

Quick, what’s the most influential First Amendment case in the history of the American legal profession? Well, if you knew before reading this that it was the “Pentagon Papers” case involving Daniel Ellsberg, you’re either a lawyer or an avid history buff. The new documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers takes an in-depth look at the man who likely did more than anyone else in politics to end the Vietnam War and hasten the end of Richard Nixon’s regime. Ellsberg had been a military analyst for the Rand Corporation, and began serving at the Pentagon under Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in August 1964. This gave him high-level access to classified information about the Vietnam War.

“I helped McNamara at a critical moment despite being totally opposed (to the war),” Ellsberg says early in the documentary. “We were intending to prepare a wider war despite President Johnson lying publicly about it. It was a well-kept secret.”

McNamara specifically wanted Ellsberg to find evidence of Vietnamese atrocities against Americans to justify an expanded bombing campaign. But despite only learning of one relatively minor incident involving two American military advisors, Ellsberg’s report was sufficient to motivate swift action on McNamara’s part against Vietnam. The result was “the most ridiculously disproportionate bombing campaign in the history of the world.” The film shows us headlines, opinions from journalists and colleagues, and most importantly, the comments of Ellsberg himself—both at the time of the war and during interviews conducted for the film—revealing the folly of the war and the increasingly deceitful government policies.

“There was a pattern of presidential lying,” Ellsberg opines, regarding what the public was told about the war. “It was a crime from the start, with no end in sight. The hundreds of thousands we were killing was unjustified; it was no better than homicide.”

The Pentagon Papers, as they were called, consisted of thousands of pages which essentially made clear that the U.S. knew they could most likely not win the war, but that there were other reasons, such as to “save American face,” to keep fighting. Ellsberg finally could ignore his conscience no longer, and decided he would have to get the documents to the New York Times (and later, other national publications). With the help of a Rand Corporation colleague who did the photocopying in secrecy, Ellsberg delivered the bundles of classified documents to reporter Neil Sheehan in 1971, and the fun began. Soon the public were able to read how multiple presidents had been lying about the Vietnam War and the so-called “cause” their friends and loved ones had been dying for. Nixon went after Ellsberg and the Times in a rage (we get to hear numerous jaw-dropping snippets from the Nixon tapes on the matter), Ellsberg went underground for awhile, and the firestorm of debate that ensued eventually landed the matter with the Supreme Court in a truly landmark case. And, as all familiar with this chapter of history are aware, it was a prelude to the Watergate scandal and the forced resignation of Tricky Dick. Alaska senator Mike Gravel is shown talking about how disillusioned he became once he read the revelations in the reports, stating that what the U.S. had turned into, policy-wise, was like seeing “something you love dearly that has gone astray.” Ellsberg himself, who never had to serve jail time despite the best efforts of those against him, gives quote after memorable quote about the lessons of the whole debacle, and they resonant well into today’s climate of war and policy spin.

“People have not asked enough of their public servants in terms of accountability,” he says. “We need the courage to face the truth about what we are doing in the world and act responsibly to change it.”

Co-directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, and making optimal use of archival footage and interviews by prominent politicians and journalists of the era, TMDMIA is filled with revelations that most Americans probably won’t know (and should hear again, even if they do). Ellsberg, far from being dangerous in the way we usually think of that word, comes across as downright heroic, a man willing to risk his freedom, his reputation and his personal life so that people could learn the truth about a monstrous injustice being perpetrated by the government. This isn’t just an interesting and informative documentary—it’s essentially a filmed ethics lesson, a wake-up call for anyone who thinks we should just trust our government to do what’s right. As such, this film will stay with you long after the credits roll. | Kevin Renick

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