The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

A Daniel Ellsberg documentary, narrated by Daniel Ellsberg, is over-the-top hero-worship.

By Sean Burns
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Art of the squeal: Daniel Ellsberg may be the most notorious whistle-blower in U.S. history.

“I never much cared for Ellsberg as a person,” riffed a friend of mine, quite surprisingly, over drinks when I mentioned the movie I was reviewing this week. Maybe it was the ponytail, his activist roots or his longtime friendship with Howard Zinn—but I’d assumed my pal would be jazzed about me covering a movie that chronicles the most legendary Washington whistle-blower of all time.

“Sure, he did a great thing for this country,” my friend noted, signaling for another round of beers, “But I still think that guy might be kind of an asshole.”

It’s my sad duty to report that The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers will do nothing to sway my drinking buddy’s opinion. Narrated by Ellsberg himself, it’s a big, sloppy, undeniably riveting blow-job of a documentary, allowing its subject final say with no outside critical perspective or even a dissenting viewpoint. He also comes off as douchey.

I guess it’s probably best to think of this as a much-needed corrective to Errol Morris The Fog of War, which began the incredibly annoying PR rehabilitation of Vietnam War-architect and former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara under similar hero-worship terms, until his death last summer passed fairly unnoticed with few besides my father and I dancing in the streets.

McNamara bears the brunt of it in Most Dangerous Man, as Ellsberg begins the picture as a geeky, think-tank operator for The RAND Corporation, so gung-ho he’s willing to do a tour in Vietnam just to see how great everything’s going. Upon his return, our hero eventually grew so disillusioned with the state of things in the former French Indochina that he Xeroxed and leaked 7,000 pages of a secret, deeply incriminating McNamara study to his elected public officials.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but sometimes politicians get us into wars that last forever and go nowhere under false pretenses.

Ellsberg didn’t get much response from what Howard Zinn calls “the culture of timidity” in Congress, so he finally blew it all out with the New York Times . Government injunctions followed, as did 18 other newspapers daring to speak the truth—damn the consequences. Eventually, junior Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska read the contents of these “Pentagon Papers” into the Congressional record as part of a filibuster—where is such bravery today?

It’s a problematic film, too beholden to its subject—yet exciting all the same. I could have done without Ellsberg’s bizarre tangents about his love of body-surfing, or him equating a childhood memory of his father nodding off while driving the family car–killing his mother and sister. It was a cheap, Freudian explanation for why he needs to be vigilant over government. We get the point, “never let your leaders fall asleep at the wheel.” But it’s also reductive and stupid, and feels packaged for anecdotal consumption.

Bizarrely enough, The Most Dangerous Man In America induces a weird sense of nostalgia for a time when reporters did their jobs and a leak like this could prove fatal for an administration.

It made me miss larger-than-life gargoyles like Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, as opposed to their pathetic, tawdry ne’er do well counterparts George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. (A simple audio clip of Tricky Dick swearing to take down “that no-good shit-ass son-of-a-bitching newspaper” had me squealing and kicking my feet.) The sinister science-fiction-y implications of the RAND Corporation are so much scarier and more fascinating than tedious profit-motive machinations of Halliburton, so I guess the movie works best as an eerily prescient time capsule.

They say that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and if The Most Dangerous Man In America proves anything, it’s that we’ve been stuck in a feedback loop for decades. It’s déjà vu all over again, except now neither the heroes nor the villains have any balls.

Grade: B-

Directors: Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith

Running time: 92 minutes

If you like this, try: Frost/Nixon, All The President’s Men

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