The man who took on Vietnam
by Jason Blair
THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA: DANIEL ELLSBERG AND THE PENTAGON PAPERS: Directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith. Written by Michael Chandler, Judith Ehrlich, Rick Goldsmith and Lawrence Lerew. Cinematography, Vicente Franco and Dan Krauss. Music, Blake Leyh. Starring Daniel Ellsberg. First Run Features, 2009. 92 minutes.
Hero worship is so common in our culture that when it actually targets someone heroic, there’s no guarantee of an audience. The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers is unmistakably an act of hero worship, but Ellsberg, who helped end the Vietnam War, is both an enduring citizen-hero and a most unlikely political activist. If you consider that President Nixon resigned as a result of Ellsberg’s exploits, you could argue that Ellsberg took on five administrations, given that the papers he leaked detailed our secret engagement in Vietnam as early as the Eisenhower administration.
Before he could help end the war in Vietnam, Ellsberg had to overcome his role in helping shape it. As a military analyst at the Pentagon, a young Ellsberg helped build the case for escalation. Beginning in 1964, he provided intelligence to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who then used Ellsberg’s briefings to expand the war while misleading the public. Ellsberg therefore contributed, in the words of Boston Globe reporter Tom Oliphant, to “the most ridiculously disproportional bombing campaign in the history of the world.” But the strength of Dangerous Man is the way in which Ellsberg meticulously lays out his conversion — from hawk to dove, from patriot to “traitor” — as an almost religious experience. Befitting one of the great minds of his generation, Ellsberg’s soul-searching was thorough and deliberate, a process that eventually led him back to Vietnam as a civilian. The trip convinced him that the war was unwinnable; the Pentagon papers convinced him that the war was unjust. “It wasn’t that we were on the wrong side,” Ellsberg says. “We were the wrong side.”
While I have great respect for Ellsberg and his accomplishments, and while Dangerous Man may be the definitive account of the Pentagon Papers, the documentary isn’t without technical slips. The scope of the story is both vast — a full 20 years — and narrowly focused on Ellsberg, who sounds at times as if he’s reading prepared materials. While some outstanding recent documentaries, like Wordplay and No End in Sight, required no writers at all, Dangerous Man credits no fewer than four writers, which can’t prevent the film from being at times hard to follow. The complexity of the material might account for that; what it doesn’t justify are the animated sequences which, while attempting to loosen up the material, only serve to cheapen it.
Still, as a record of a heroic act without equal, Dangerous Man is a crucial synopsis of one of the darker episodes in our history. It is full of surprisingly crisp imagery from the era, from General William Westmoreland’s tugboat-sized chin to younger, more hirsute incarnations of journalistic luminaries like Mike Wallace, Dan Rather and Harry Reasoner (the latter is one of the great names in broadcast journalism). Richard Nixon, via his eponymous audio tapes, is at his petulant and vicious worst here, calling Vietnam a “shit-ass little country” and shouting of Ellsberg, “We gotta get the SOB!” The quotes resound with echoes of a recent Imperial Presidency, raising the question of whether during the run-up to Iraq, we forgot or never learned the lessons of Ellsberg and Vietnam. Nominated for an Oscar in 2009 for Best Documentary Feature, Dangerous Man is an ambitious act of remembering, there to consult when we once again forget.
The Most Dangerous Man in America opens Friday, April 23, at the Bijou.