Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Movie Review: The Most Dangerous Man in America

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers *** ½
Directed By:
Judith Ehrich & Rick Goldsmith.

Daniel Ellsberg believed that the Pentagon Papers would end the war in Vietnam. He saw thousands of Americans, and hundreds of thousands Vietnamese, dying in the war, and he could no longer look the other way. He had worked with the Pentagon for years, gathering the intelligence they needed to conduct their war in Vietnam. He had once been pro-war. But then as part of his job, he got access to this huge report that had been produced by the Pentagon, which detailed decades of lying on behalf of the Presidents – from Eisenhower to Kennedy to Johnson to Nixon – where it became clear that each and every one of them lied to the American people about the reasons, and necessity, for invading Vietnam. Ellsberg at first tried to convince some of the war’s most outspoken critics to review the documents, and while they did, none of them were prepared to go public with the information. So instead, Ellsberg took the papers to the New York Times, and the rest is history. All the government’s dirty little secrets came out, and while it did not have the impact Ellsberg expected to have, it remains an important moment in American history.

The new documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (the title comes from what Richard Nixon called Ellsberg in the White House tapes), tells Ellsberg’s story from the time when he was a pro-war guy who helped to draft the plans for the war in Vietnam in the first place, to his slow dawning of what the real story was – and his move to try and end the war by leaking the highly classified papers. It is a fascinating documentary about that time.

The story is probably already well known to the people who lived through the Vietnam war. After all, Ellsberg was front page news for a few years, first when the papers themselves leaked, and then when he finally came to trial (the case was dismissed, because the government had so badly handled it). But since then, this chapter in history had faded into the background. After all, the war did not end when the papers were leaked. In fact, a year after they were, Nixon won a landslide reelection. It is not the Pentagon papers scandal that doomed the Nixon administration, but rather Watergate – although according to John Dean, the roots of Nixon’s downfall began during the Pentagon papers scandal.

But the story is still relevant for a number of reasons. As one of the many talking heads says, the last legacy of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers maybe the landmark Supreme Court case it inspired. The Nixon administration tried to stop the papers from being published altogether – they got an injunction against the New York Times, and when other papers took up the cause, they got injunctions against them as well. Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled that the government could not do that – and that is one of the key First Amendment cases in American history.

But the documentary is not just fascinating because of all the politics involved in it. Don’t get me wrong, it is fascinating because of them, but only so. The film is also a fascinating portrait of both Ellsberg, and his wife, and how the scandal almost destroyed their marriage, but ended up bringing them closer together.

The Most Dangerous Man in America is not a groundbreaking documentary in any sense. All the information in it could be found somewhere else – including the book it’s based on. But it is a fascinating documentary all the same. For those interested in that time period – and it is one of the periods in American history that most interests me – it is a must see.

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