Those we deem heroes seldom come in a form more inspirational than that of a good whistleblower, and, in 1971, Pentagon hawk turned antiwar rebel Daniel Ellsberg committed one of the great American acts of civil disobedience when he leaked to the press secret documents proving that the government had long been lying to the people about the Vietnam War.
Ellsberg’s personal transformation and act of conscience have inspired a new documentary, “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.”
It’s an informative, entertaining real-life thriller.
Using interviews and archival footage, filmmakers Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith chronicle Ellsberg’s story, with Ellsberg, who’s still a force, serving as chief talking head and narrator.
The film begins as an awakening journey, then takes on the tone of an espionage drama.
We revisit Ellsberg’s days as a Cold Warrior and high-ranking government insider who comes to believe that the Vietnam War cannot be won.
The “Pentagon Papers,” a RAND Corporation study, confirm that the government, for decades, has shared this sentiment but has kept the war going and lied to the public to save face.
Impelled by conscience, and realizing he could spend the rest of his life in prison, Ellsberg leaks the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and, soon, to other newspapers.
Monumental consequences follow: Ellsberg and RAND colleague Anthony Russo are tried under the Espionage Act. The Supreme Court issues a landmark pro-First Amendment decision. Nixon’s obsession with Ellsberg prompts the burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office by the “plumbers,” of eventual Watergate fame.
Erhlich and Goldsmith aren’t the most distinctive or dexterous of filmmakers. Their style is conventional; their sequences featuring crude-looking animation are clunky.
But they deliver terrific information and generally present it adroitly, and the results are an engrossing history lesson, an affecting portrait of a superior whistle-blower, an atmospheric trip through the Nixonian warp, and a relevant reminder of the importance of a strong free press and of how constructive and effective civil disobedience can be.
There are nuggets galore: Ellsberg detailing the mammoth task of photocopying thousands of pages of documents; Times journalists describing how they decided what to do with it all; wife Patricia Marx Ellsberg, who met Ellsberg when she was a liberal radio host, recalling a date at an antiwar rally (he carried her tape recorder); Richard Nixon, represented with tape-recorded rantings, saying things no screenwriter could fabricate.
The title comes from Henry Kissinger.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
Three and a half stars
With Daniel Ellsberg, Patricia Marx Ellsberg, Anthony Russo, Hedrick Smith
Written by Lawrence Lerew, Rick Goldsmith, Judith Ehrlich, Michael Chandler
Directed by Judith Ehrlich, Rick Goldsmith
Running time 1 hour 34 minutes