MVFF: The Most Dangerous Man in American: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (B+)

Full disclaimer: I’m an Ellsberg fan boy. To me, he’s an American Hero, which I believe even more after seeing this movie and hearing him speak. I went to Berkeley in the ’60s. I was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. I was a Watergate  junkie, covering the Senate Watergate Hearings for Visnews (now Reuters Video). And as if last night’s screening of The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers wasn’t something I was predisposed to enjoy, sitting to my left were former Alaskan senator Mike Gravel and former California congressman Pete McCloskey, both of whom appear in the film and played important roles in Ellsberg’s disclosure of the Pentagon Papers. (Interesting side note: Gravel, a former Democrat is now a registered Libertarian, while McCloskey a former Republican is now a Democrat.) Oh, and Daniel Ellsberg and his charming wife, Patricia were in attendance and took questions after the film. I’ve used the word “charming” too much in the past ten days of the film festival, but there’s no better word to describe this woman and this couple’s obviously still-fresh romance. Ellsberg is now a very youthful 78.

For those too young or too old to remember the story, Ellsberg worked at the RAND Corporation reporting indirectly to Robert S. McNamara at the Pentagon. Ellsberg helped gather data that was used by McNamara and Lyndon Johnson to build a bogus case for the escalation of the Vietnam war, which Ellsberg would come to regret. (McNamara would also come to regret his recommendations, but that was later and in another movie.) Locked up under Top Secret classification, Ellsberg found hard evidence that four U.S. presidents (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson) all lied to America about what was really going on in Vietnam. Ellsberg smuggled 7,000 pages of classified material out of the RAND Corporation’s Santa Monica offices, copied them, and gave them to the New York Times and 16 other newspapers who published the documents as the Pentagon Papers during 1971. (They had to serialize the publication in this manner because court injunctions against individual newspapers kept forcing Ellsberg to repeatedly move to different publishers.) Nixon’s ordering a break-in of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office was one cause of his impeachment and ultimate resignation.

Publishing classified documents was an act of civil disobedience. Ellsberg was indicted on charges under the Espionage Act and could have been sentenced to 115 years in prison if convicted. The charges were dismissed because of an incredible array of government and prosecutorial misdeeds.

But enough history. Read it all on Wikipedia or, better yet, try and see this movie. It’s a first-rate documentary by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, but one which plays almost like the political thriller that the true story was. It’s an excellent combination of interviews, newsreel footage and stills. Ehrlich told us that the only way they could get some great footage of Walter Cronkite’s coverage of Nixon was because Nixon had recorded and saved all the network-new broadcasts and that she (Ehrlich) could therefore get the material from public archives. Apparently it would have cost them too much to get the footage from CBS.

The Most Dangerous Man is still new, and I don’t know if or how it will be distributed. Educational institutions can buy a DVD from the filmmakers’ web site, but it’s not available to the general public. Keep your eye out for this film, which is particularly poignant on this eve of President Obama’s decision about expanding the war in Afghanistan. It all sounds so familar.

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