Few personal stories on the national stage hinge on so dramatic a change as that Daniel Ellsberg underwent during the Vietnam War. His tale of irrepressible conscience returns—told largely in his own words —in Rick Goldsmith & Judith Ehrlich's Oscar-nominated documentary The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers.
Those who lived through the Vietnam era probably won't find much in the way of revelation here, but the film's thorough recounting of (and accounting for) Ellsberg's character arc serves as a reminder of history we seem to have doomed ourselves to repeat in the defining military quagmire of today. For younger generations, Ellsberg's story may be something of a shocker, something of a political thriller (and, to some degree, a heist movie) punctuated by choice audio cuts of a profane and seemingly crazed President since nicknamed "Tricky Dick." The Most Dangerous Man in America is the film for anyone who ever doubted that one man can make a difference.
Stylistically, Goldsmith & Ehrlich work in the vein of Errol Morris. Like The Fog of War, The Most Dangerous Man in America incorporates a few stylish inserts but primarily provides an up-close profile of a man in a position to make or break war policy through his work. Ellsberg worked as a strategic analyst at the government-sponsored military think tank The RAND Corporation and, for a time, within the Defense and State Departments, over some years helping Secretaries of Defense (including Robert McNamara) to sell the case for war. In narrating his own story, Ellsberg recalls his gradual discomfort with the misrepresentation of facts to justify grand-scale conflict.
While Goldsmith & Ehrlich succinctly lay out the political circumstances influencing Ellsberg's divergence from the company line, they also strongly embrace the human element, with Ellsberg recalling the influence of his girlfriend (and later wife) Patricia, his children, and his own childhood trauma in making an otherwise lonely historic decision: to leak to the media the top secret McNamara study of twenty years of U.S. decision-making in Vietnam, soon infamous as "the Pentagon Papers." It didn't take long for Ellsberg to become a fugitive then defendant, political lightning rod and cause célèbre. (Added bonus: like All the President’s Men, The Most Dangerous Man in America celebrates newspapers in their heyday.)
Branded a traitor by many of his former friends and colleagues, Ellsberg also immediately became the hero of the anti-war movement. Still a spiritual leader within the protest community, a now-septuagenarian Ellsberg harbors no regrets, and the talking heads (including John Dean and the late Howard Zinn) testify to the import of the man’s actions. The echoes of contemporary politics are loudly implicit, but even on a strictly human level, Ellsberg makes a deserving subject and a role model for making a hugely difficult but deeply considered personal change and, ever since, staying true to his moral compass.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]