‘Dangerous’ documentary impresses

By Garth Brody

You all owe your freedom to Daniel Ellsberg.

Well, that may be a bit of an overstatement, but it is approximately the way you will feel after seeing “The Most Dangerous Man in America,” a documentary about the man who took the Pentagon Papers from top secret to front page. With wide critical acclaim following its limited September release last year, the film was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 82 Academy Awards (it lost to the dolphin-hunting exposé “The Cove”).

“The Most Dangerous Man in America” takes its title from a Henry Kissinger quotation describing Ellsberg, but the combined efforts of directors Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, as well as the titular subject – who actually narrates his own story – make it clear that the film was named with tongues mostly in cheeks.

Then again, when the movie isn’t convincing you how important Ellsberg’s contributions to our democracy have been, it is reminding you what an incredible badass he is. In one of his many interview segments, which cleverly splits his voice between narrative and personal, he affirms that his time in the Marine Corps constituted “the happiest days of [his] professional career.”

Besides commanding a platoon of soldiers, Ellsberg earned a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard before working for the military-industrial RAND corporation; he is a best-of-the-best, top-of-the-class, all-American man. He even looks like Paul Newman; in one anecdote, he nervously returns to the theaters to see “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”.

He also has a conscience, which is the part of the story everybody already knows. It’s also the part that the film rather monotonously hammers home. This might have been more troublesome if it weren’t so compelling. Ellsberg’s genuine pathos shines through as the movie’s highlight in his interviews.

In particular, he moves himself – and by no stretch of the imagination, the audience – to tears when he defines his life’s story as consisting of two chapters: before and after witnessing a 1969 speech by Randy Kehler advising young men that going to prison is more conscionable than cooperating with the draft. The camera pulls back, and Ellsberg is sitting across the table from an aged Kehler, equally moved.

The rest is history; Ellsberg copies hundreds upon hundreds of pages of incriminating top secret documentation concerning the United States’ covert and unethical action in Vietnam, leaks it to newspapers around the country, defies President Nixon’s orders to desist, gets alternately lambasted and lauded on national news, leads the FBI on a weeks-long manhunt, and finally disgraces Nixon in a monumental debacle of a mistrial. It makes for a gripping documentary thriller, even if some of its most critical moments are played out in puzzlingly low-quality, albeit charming, Flash animations.

Ellsberg lost his mother and sister as a teenager when his father fell asleep at the wheel of the family car. He spent the better part of his life trying to right the wrongs of leaders in similarly precarious situations, and the connection is made tangible by “The Most Dangerous Man in America.” It may be one-sided, but as the film so poignantly proves, there is sometimes no alternative.

Garth Brody can be reached at [email protected]