While no one could call it impartial, "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers" is clear, concise, crisply paced and thoroughly researched. The Oscar-nominated film by Judy Ehrlich and Rich Goldsmith is not balanced in the traditional, "on the other hand" sense, yet it's a riveting history of one man's mission to expose the misdeeds of five U.S. presidents as they consistently misled the public about the purpose and conduct of the Vietnam War.
This isn't a dusty chapter of ancient history, but a fresh, exciting story. Ellsberg, who worked as a defense analyst in the government-funded Rand Corp., emerges as a complex and contradictory character. He was a Harvard-trained Cold Warrior turned antiwar crusader. His convictions were shaped by his battlefield experiences as a Marine battalion commander, by personal visits to Southeast Asia, and by his relationship with his dovish wife, Patricia.
He reminisces about the low-tech techniques he employed to copy 7,000 pages of classified documents, at times bringing his children along to help with the after-hours photocopying. He also takes blame for cooking evidence to support U.S. intervention in his early days as a researcher for Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Ellsberg recalls preparing a report that misrepresented Viet Cong handling of American prisoners, focusing on a rare example of harsh treatment. After receiving the briefing, Lyndon Johnson committed more troops to the conflict.
The 93-minute film presents few views challenging its thesis that Ellsberg is a great, selfless patriot. Not unless you count the fulminations of Richard Nixon in his profanity-laced White House audio tapes.
Nixon's outrage that the whistle-blower released top-secret documents exposing decades of lies about the war led him to approve the 1971 burglary of the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist in hopes of discrediting or blackmailing him. As the film details, that operation paved the way for the Watergate break-in that led to Nixon's resignation in disgrace.
His administration's efforts to quash publication of the material laid the groundwork for one of the most important Supreme Court rulings protecting freedom of the press. Ellsberg, white-haired at 78, is now a vocal opponent of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Late in the film he is shown, arms shackled behind his back, being ushered away from a peace protest and into the back of a police van.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186