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Review: The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2010)

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2010)

Directed by: Judith Ehrlich & Rick Goldsmith

Premise: A documentary about Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon insider who leaked top secret studies about the Vietnam War to various newspapers.

What Works: Documentary films are often dismissed by mainstream viewers as either boring academic tracts or as partisan propaganda. While there are plenty of examples of either one of those, documentary films are an important filmmaking genre and in the past decade they have exploded in visibility and accessibility in part because documentarians have married their exposition with a sense of storytelling, showmanship and contemporary cinematic tastes. The Most Dangerous Man in America descends from that trend and is an impressive historical piece that is as riveting and suspenseful as a dramatic film. This is primarily a biographical piece, telling the story of Daniel Ellsberg from his days as a United States Marine to his work at the Pentagon and later to his work as an antiwar activist. The narrative of his conversion from supporting the war to becoming one of its most high profile opponents is all the more impressive because of degree to which Ellsberg was involved in both sides, first participating in designing the bombing strategies of the Johnson administration and later engaging in civil disobedience. The film seizes on this and smartly edits the film to draw parallels between his work on both sides of the war effort and it is able to highlight the tension Ellsberg experienced in his conversion. As a result, The Most Dangerous Man in America avoids the major pitfall of historical storytelling: the viewer’s assumption that history has unraveled in a natural and even predestined order of events. The Most Dangerous Man in America restores the element of choice—by Ellsberg as well as by journalists and politicians—and that matter of choice creates an understanding of why the actions of Ellsberg and his allies were heroic. Beyond the immediate drama of Ellsberg’s personal story, The Most Dangerous Man in America is also able to place the Pentagon Papers case in a broader historical context. The film shows how the Nixon administration’s attempts to stem the leaks and discredit Ellsberg led to the Watergate scandal and the eventual undoing of the Nixon presidency. The film also demonstrates how the Pentagon Papers set a legal precedent that is still appealed to in contemporary political matters. 

What Doesn’t: The Most Dangerous Man in America incorporates a few dramatic recreations of moments from Ellsberg’s life and although they are not poorly done, they do stick out among the contemporary interviews and historical footage. In the ending of the film, the picture attempts to connect the legacy of the Pentagon Paper’s case with contemporary struggles to preserve free speech. The Most Dangerous Man in America only makes passing observance of this. A fuller exploration can be found in the documentary Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech.

DVD extras: Interviews, excerpts from Nixon’s Oval Office tapes, a featurette, biographies, and trailers. 

Bottom Line: The Most Dangerous Man in America is an impressive documentary and probably the best cinematic text on the Pentagon Papers case. The film makes an excellent companion piece to the documentaries Hearts and Minds, Why We Fight, and The Fog of War, although it stands well enough by itself and is an important demonstration of what freedom actually means and what it costs.

Episode: #345 (June 26, 2011)