(2009) directors Judith Ehrlich, Rick Goldsmith
Though it’s not the best-made documentary in the world (it’s satisfactory), The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers is an immensely timely and poignant film because its subject matter reverberates with so much in the present. Though it’s very explicitly about something that happened in the past.
The story of Daniel Ellsberg and the release of the Pentagon Papers, a report commissioned by Robert McNamara for the Lyndon Johnson White House, is a story about the lies that are told through the teeth of the government and about the attempt to suppress the truth when someone decides to blow the whistle. Ellsburg had been a marine, a keen intellect who wound up working for the RAND Corporation, advising the government on most effective war practices among other things. He was an inside man in the Johnson administration and tied still to the Richard Nixon administration deep in the behind-the-doors world of what really happened.
Ellsberg’s story is told by Ellsberg himself, narrating the tale of his change in political beliefs and his shift from the government’s company man to the government’s worst nightmare. Well, Nixon’s anyway. And it’s not simply an amazing story, but what it says about the government of the United States of America from Harry S. Truman, through Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and finally with Nixon. The lies, the politically motivated versioning of the the truth in order to invade Vietnam and fight the war there.
The classic line about one who does not know history being doomed to repeat it proves frighteningly true when considering the Bush administration’s build-up to the Iraq War. But considering that the lies and groundwork for Vietnam were laid over decades, it’s impossible to forget that so was the groundwork for the battles in the Middle East. The fact that, as Americans, we’ve learned nothing from the fact that the government, even some of the heroes of the presidency, have flat out lied to us, that the precedent is set, that we shouldn’t just simply believe everything/anything we are told, we really should be more intelligent and more outraged.
Beyond the lies, Ellsberg’s release of super Top Secret documents to the major newspapers of the United States was also groundbreaking in the right to information, the freedom of the press, and our first amendment rights to freedom of speech as anything else. Of course, the parallel now is Wikileaks. While Wikileaks is not an American institution, as The New York Times and Washington Post and others were at the time of the Pentagon Papers, it comes down to the same issue. When there is critical information that proves the lies and manipulation by the government, things that speak less to national security than the back room planning of the people in charge, there is a real need, perhaps a mandate, that that information have an outlet for release.
While the film clearly paints the picture of the decades-long deception, uncovered in the report that was drafted for McNamara, the real villain of the film is none other than Richard Nixon. In 2011, Nixon is perhaps less known or appreciated for the vile entity that he was. It’s his own voice and his own words that paint the picture of the man in this film, someone who cares not about human life, who wishes to repress information that will show his administration’s lies, and who vindictively sends his henchmen to try to punish Ellsberg for his actions. He is so utterly despicable that it’s barely fathomable.
This film might be an interesting companion to Errol Morris’ The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, another look back at the time period by another key figure, the now late Robert McNamara. But as intelligent and thoughtful as McNamara came across late in life, reflecting on what happened, Ellsberg stood up to a government machine, bigger than any one administration, though one that was becoming increasingly out of control and totalitarian, whose mistakes cost many, many lives. Ellsberg, though perhaps considered a “liberal” hero by some, is someone who stood for more than himself, but for the ethics that the country was based upon, against people who warped that ideal.