JUDITH EHRLICH AND RICK GOLDSMITH, THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA
As a history lesson, Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s enthralling new documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, is as solid as a textbook, stitching together old broadcast footage, first-person testimony, tart excerpts from the Nixon White House tapes, and noirish recreations into riveting, revelatory political drama. The name “Daniel Ellsberg” probably doesn’t trigger the same flurry of associations as Deep Throat, the shadowy antihero of the Watergate scandal, but it should: An ex-Marine, former assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, and highly respected analyst at the Rand Corporation, Ellsberg leaked a 7,000-page study detailing the top-secret Southeast Asia policies of five presidential administrations to the New York Times, resulting in a landmark court case, attempted cover-ups, and a nasty smear campaign, all culminating in the ignominious resignation of President Nixon. To be sure, the spy-grade story of the Pentagon Papers controversy has a lot of rich angles, including government secrecy, first-amendment rights versus executive privilege, and the rise of the national security state. But it’s also a conversion tale deeply concerned with the burden of conscience that Ellsberg felt as a government insider to tell the public what he believed they had a right to know, and his desire as a newly minted dove to change the course of the Vietnam War.
Part journalistic exposé, part overdue homage to one of the last century’s most notorious whistleblowers, Most Dangerous Man is a pressurized piece of filmmaking, resonating with issues (civil rights, the press, the conduct of war) still worrying the national conscience. With considerable flair backed by exhaustive research, Ehrlich (The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It, 2001) and Goldsmith (Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press, 1996) guide us through the corridors of power where the Vietnam war was seeded and then bloomed, often against the private advice of military analysts. Ellsberg himself provided McNamara with evidence of “atrocities” that helped push the war along, then reversed course after a two-year stint in Saigon with the State Department convinced him it was not only a lost cause, but a moral travesty based on years of prevarication. Seen then and now, he emerges as a man of principle, sincere and articulate. His fascinating chronicle of that time is augmented by a carousel of outspoken interviewees, including old colleagues like Anthony Russo (the Rand associate who persuaded him to Xerox the papers), Nixon officials John Dean and Bud Krogh (who authorized the break-in at Ellsberg’s doctor’s office), and general counsel James Goodale, who soothed the nerves of the Times’ top brass. Winner of the Special Jury Award at IDFA, and recently shortlisted for the Oscar, Most Dangerous Man is able-bodied and slyly entertaining, and has plenty to teach us, especially in these times, about the power of dissent.
Filmmaker spoke with Ehrlich and Goldsmith about crises of conscience, fair-use issues, and why you won’t be seeing Dan Ellsberg on any talking-head news programs.
To Read the Interview