First Run Features

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

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

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Narrated by its whistle-blowing hero (and based in part on two of his books), The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers traces how the doubts of one connected insider—a “true believer” in American Cold War policy who worked as an analyst for the Defense and State Departments and the Washington-sponsored RAND Corporation—mushroomed into an act of rebellion that eventually helped end a war and the presidency of Richard Nixon. Ellsberg, a former peacetime commander of a Marine rifle company and lauded Harvard scholar of economics and decision theory, emerges first in Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's documentary as a cog in the professional war machine, albeit a brilliant and potentially conflicted one; he pinpoints the pinnacle of his contribution to the “face-saving” catastrophe of the Vietnam War as his uncovering of two Yankee fatalities at the hands of native communists, which his Pentagon boss Robert McNamara used as an emotional flashpoint for pressuring Lyndon Johnson to expand U.S. involvement. While serving as a diplomat in Saigon for two years, Ellsberg saw a stealthy pair of Vietcong snipers ambush an American squad, prompting him to ask the unit's leader, “Do you ever feel like the redcoats?”

Convinced that the propagandized noble cause was a stalemate, hearing LBJ and McNamara lie about “progress,” and alienated from his fiancée's aggressive criticism of his career, the increasingly disillusioned Ellsberg is painted as the tortured hero of a psychological drama, though the filmmakers perhaps too directly link his determination to set the course of events aright with the childhood car accident that claimed his mother and sister when his father was, like five successive U.S. presidents in Indochina, asleep at the wheel. Once he decides to copy the titular secret study of American intervention in 'Nam, and then leak it to Congress and the press, Ellsberg's story morphs from one of personal conscience to political thrills, with a midnight handoff from the New York Times to an antiwar senator, a near-miss with the LAPD as the Ellsberg family labors at copying the pilfered document, and the White House tapes providing a blackly comic chorus of Nixon railing against “that son-of-a-bitchin' thief” for endangering his plans for pyrrhic military victory (to Kissinger: “I'd rather use a nuclear bomb. Have you got that ready?”). By connecting the victorious Pentagon Papers censorship battle to Crazy Dick's creation of the felonious band of “Plumbers” (assigned to break into both Watergate and the office of Ellsberg's psychoanalyst), The Most Dangerous Man in America chooses not to follow the money but one man's evolution in the pursuit of principle: “We weren't on the wrong side; we were the wrong side.”

First Run Features
94 min
Judith Ehrlich, Rick Goldsmith
Lawrence Lerew, Judith Ehrlich, Rick Goldsmith
Daniel Ellsberg, Patricia Ellsberg, Anthony Russo, Hedrick Smith, Egil "Bud" Krogh, Howard Zinn