During the late 1960s and early 1970s, America the beautiful began showing long gestating scars of anger and resentment, permanently turning its sunny 1950s façade of suburban capitalism into a powder keg of counter-culture activism and unrest. Many social and political issues provided the necessary sparks, most notably the growing public distrust of a governmental foreign policy grasping at straws in the Vietnam War. This volatile context frames the central human conflict of guilt and culpability in The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, a conventionally-styled documentary on the complexities of famed whistle blower Daniel Ellsberg, who defied his posh D.C. post and leaked the crucial Pentagon Papers to the press.
Described as one of the brightest minds America had to offer, Ellsberg rose to political prominence as a military analyst for the RAND Corporation and later in the Defense Department under Robert McNamara during the early years of the Vietnam War. A former Marine, Ellsberg traveled extensively to Vietnam for the Pentagon, gathering data to convince Congress of America’s necessary involvement in Indo-China. It was within this timeframe that McNamara ordered the “Pentagon Study of American Involvement in Vietnam,” an extensive project that inevitably revealed a crippling pattern of presidential lies and governmental half-truths. The Johnson White House subsequently covered up the study, which threw Ellsberg’s role as a polite political team player into a moral tailspin.
Ellsberg’s participation in the corrupt D.C. landscape invariably led him to question the sanctity of the establishment and draft a plan to unearth the Pentagon Papers for the American public. The Most Dangerous Man in America makes the conflict between loyalty to government and duty to country the central recurring theme, using first-person interviews with Ellsberg, his wife Patricia, and essential co-conspirators like Tony Russo to magnify the importance of their actions. Directors Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith attempt to construct these complexities into a narrative arc, showing Ellsberg’s ideological transition in temporal stages. The film stays incredibly close to its subject’s self prescribed martyrdom and guilt, and the tertiary interviewees merely add to this specific examination.
Often fascinating and intuitive, the documentary’s subject matter never transcends the individual historians dishing out their obviously biased perspectives. Unlike Peter Davis’s masterpiece Hearts and Minds, this is not a film about national trauma or even societal change, but one man’s journey to overcome his own guilt at contributing to key deceptions noted within the study. In that sense, Ellsberg’s confessions only take the film so far, and during the final sequence the narrative hits an emotional bog. There’s never much complexity to Ellsberg’s motives or even actions, just the simple guilt of being a part of some collective deceit. During the final act, the film relies solely on the iconic papers as a righteous deflection of the Nixon administration’s egregious corruption and arrogance, only slightly grazing on the essential ramifications the leak had on the First Amendment rights of print media. It’s more like shooting fish in a barrel than rigorous historiography.
Along with some stale narrative execution, The Most Dangerous Man in America suffers from a glaring lack of memorable aesthetics. Laborious transitions often cloud the film’s pacing, while awkward animated segments jar the viewer out of the historical timeline on display. Footage of an elderly Ellsberg in 2008 doesn’t amount to more than glamour shots of a man still performing magic tricks, participating in anti-war rallies, and passionately fighting the man. Yet aside from tacked on accounts of being shunned at the RAND Corporation luncheons, none of these moments give a sense of the cost Ellsberg has so obviously paid for betraying the government. It speaks to the overarching problems of the film, both as an expose and indictment of 1970s American politics and an exploration of our most important historical, cultural, and social mosaic in recent times.
Daniel Ellsberg obviously battled a moral conundrum still facing our governmental leaders today, and this modern relevance occasionally shines through his words and warnings. Yet the momentary confessions of Ellsberg, friends, and family leave his nuances and historical role plagued by one-note generalizations. In this regard, The Most Dangerous Man in America never lives up to its title, brushing off the surface of a fascinating subject but never finding the angle it needs to personify endless archival footage of suffering Vietnamese and angry Americans. We’re just left with a predictable history lesson of a white man’s burden.
A standard transfer that really doesn't stand out or ring any quality alarms. Most of the interviews are shot on crummy DV, making the long line of 16mm archival clips pop even more. The sound is adequately mixed but occasionally overlaps in awkward ways, usually during the clumsy transitional moments combining music and dialogue.
Short interviews with actor Woody Harrelson and author Naomi Wolf only slightly add depth to the Daniel Ellsberg story. Full clips from the Nixon tapes are a nice addition, but they're played without much context or analysis. The rest of the unimpressive barebones extras include a link to Daniel Ellsberg's website, filmmaker bios, and a trailer gallery.
Conventional in almost every sense, The Most Dangerous Man in America only scratches the surface of a man immersed in social and moral guilt during one of the most turbulent times in American history.