TIFF Review: The Most Dangerous Man in America | Bleader

Monday, September 14, 2009

TIFF Review: The Most Dangerous Man in America

A new documentary profiles the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers.

Posted By on 09.14.09 at 12:00 PM

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The title for this documentary about Daniel Ellsberg, the defense department analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971, is how Ellsberg was described at the time by Henry Kissinger, the U.S. secretary of state. Of course, back then plenty of people thought Kissinger was the most dangerous man in America, or perhaps his boss, Richard Nixon. If you wanted to be the most dangerous man in America in 1971, you really had to put in some hours.

Because American history has repeated itself so flagrantly in Iraq (and may yet again in Afghanistan), any filmmaker who wants to revisit the Vietnam war for the thousandth time can always claim some relevance to current events. Writer-directors Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith trace a dully familiar chain of events from the early 60s through the early 70s—the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, the tragic miscalculations of Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara, the Tet offensive and its political fallout, the widening war and apocalyptic resolve of Nixon and Kissinger. We've all been there before, many times over. But The Most Dangerous Man in America manages to carve out its own little place in the canon by focusing on the ethical journey of one man who refused to shrug off his own slim responsibility for the war and atoned for it with an act that sent shock waves across the country.

As an employee at the RAND Corporation in the early 60s, Ellsberg helped formulate U.S. strategy for launching a nuclear exchange, and as an assistant to defense secretary Robert McNamara, he assembled data that President Johnson would use to justify aerial bombardment of North Vietnam. Ellsberg was always on the lookout for the dramatic emotional detail that would sell the war to people, such as the fact that two captured U.S. soldiers had been chained and dragged from the back of moving vehicles by the Viet Cong.

Ironically, Ehrlich and Goldsmith have taken his lesson to heart, and the personal details are what give the movie its force. When Ellsberg met Patricia Marx, the Washington journalist who would later become his wife, the only time he had off from work for a date was Sunday afternoon, and she had to cover a peace rally in front of the White House, which put Ellsberg in the ticklish position of being photographed among the protesters even as he was advising LBJ on how to escalate the war. Years later, after he'd turned against the war and resolved to leak the Pentagon's top-secret study on U.S. strategy in Vietnam, he took his two children along to help him photocopy and collate the 7,000-page document, hoping to give them a hand in this seismic act of civil disobedience. On the Saturday night before the Times launched its unprecedented publication of the document, Ellsberg, his friend Howard Zinn, and their wives nervously took in a movie that had become Ellsberg's favorite: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The movie becomes particularly prescient as Ehrlich and Goldsmith explore the battle inside the Times over whether to publish the purloined document; the paper's outside attorneys advised them not to publish, but its legal counsel reasoned that there was nothing in the Pentagon Papers that compromised national security; all the document did was tear the curtain away from the decisions that had led America into the war. All the arguments rehearsed during this period, revolving around national security needs versus the public's right to know, came back around during the Bush years as the Times reported on the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program and the CIA's Terrorist Finance Tracking Program. No less than John Dean, who regularly dines out on his own defiance of Richard Nixon, expresses some sympathy for his old boss and notes that the new culture of constant government leaks has made the president's job even more difficult. His observation makes Ellsberg's decision even more fraught with consequences than we might have thought.

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