“The Most Dangerous Man in America,” Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s cogent docu about Daniel Ellsberg, the high-level Pentagon official and Vietnam War planner who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, crams a wealth of material into 90 minutes without losing clarity or momentum. Fascinating for those who lived through the controversy and those for whom the incidentrings only the faintest of bells, the pic wisely allows obvious parallels between Vietnam and Iraq to hover unspoken. Must-see docu is skedded to open Sept. 16 at Gotham’s Film Forum after its Toronto fest bow.
The pic opens with the publication of the Papers and the resultant media storm, FBI manhunt and branding of Ellsberg by Henry Kissinger as “the most dangerous man in America.” The story then backtracks to follow the sequence of key events in Ellsberg’s life: the deaths of his mother and sister (when his father fell asleep at the wheel); his seminal doctoral thesis on decision theory; his 1954-57 stint in the Marines (“the happiest time of my life”); and finally his position in the Defense Department under Robert McNamara.
Ellsberg was instrumental in compiling reports to justify bombing North Vietnam. The docu dramatizes the glee with which Ellsberg sought and found a Viet Cong atrocity (complete with graphic details) to strengthen the case for a policy that he personallyopposed. Guilt over this deed would color all his subsequent actions.
Some may criticize the filmmakers’ strict adherence to Ellsberg as both narrator and star, but the docu focuses on his moral turnaround, which directly impacted history. This unique fusion of personal and social drama allows the pic to avoid the usual canned montage-of-the-times approach. The footage places Ellsberg at the center of both polar factions regarding Vietnam: playing Pentagon war games and marching in peace protests.
Ehrlich and Goldsmith’s varied storytelling techniques include interviews with eclectic talking heads, re-enactments of shadowy figures Xeroxing thousands of pages, crude animation of secret transfers of boxes of documents, and tape recorders spinning Nixon’s uncensored commentary.
Once Ellsberg resolves to publish the 7,000 page secret Rand history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, detailing the lies of four American presidents who plunged the country ever deeper into what increasingly proved to be an unwinnable war, his action (and its attendant threat of a life behind bars) is mirrored by a succession of newspaper editors who reprinted the documents, despite injunctions and court orders, in an impressive show of First Amendment solidarity.
While a present-day Ellsberg complains that the massive number of bombs dropped on Vietnam, which he repeatedly mentioned in press conferences back then, was never duly reported, Ehrlich and Goldsmith redress that silence with a bombardment of newsreel images of aerial destruction.