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(***The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers is streaming for free online at PBS’s POV website from October 6-27, 2010.*** It world premiered at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival and opened theatrically in New York on September 16, 2009, at the Film Forum.)

The dilemma of professional honor versus patriotism gets a hearty workout in Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Whatever one thinks about Ellsberg’s decision as a governmental insider to go public with classified documents in 1971 regarding the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam conflict, one cannot deny that few Americans have ever been forced into such a moral and ethical quandary as Ellsberg.

Or have they? Gradually, over the course of the film, as Ellsberg himself recounts the story of our country’s troubling history with Vietnam, the current situation in Iraq becomes more than just a mere parallel; it becomes a mirror image. And if one makes that virtually unavoidable connection, a more disturbing question emerges: why hasn’t this behavior happened more often, throughout the course of history?

Is it because Ellsberg’s actions are, like his opponents say, those of a criminal, a liar, a traitor? Was his professional vow of silence with regards to his immediate superiors, and, by extension, the institution to which he belonged, more important than his overwhelming sense of duty to his fellow Americans, as well as those innocent civilians in Vietnam? This is a question that Ehrlich and Goldsmith don’t address directly, but by simply allowing Ellsberg to tell his own story, they make a powerful argument in support of the man, and deliver a rousing call for others to join him.

danielellsbergstillLet it be known that Ellsberg wasn’t some hippy outsider who infiltrated the government with a master plan of exposing its deadly corruption. No, he was a believer—in his government, in his profession, in his support of America’s involvement in Vietnam. So much so, in fact, that in 1964, as Special Assistant to Assistant Secretary of Defense (International Security Affairs), he was responsible for producing a report on Vietcong atrocities that enabled Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to begin bombing North Vietnam.

It wasn’t until later that Ellsberg realized the gravity of his actions, which hadn’t at that time been supported by concrete facts. By that point, the Vietnam War had spun all the way out of control and Ellsberg was now working for the RAND Corporation on the “Pentagon Papers,” which studied U.S. decision making in Vietnam from 1945 through 1968. As he learned more and more about his government’s devious actions, no matter the president, his own role in the fiasco began to take a toll on him. In order to redeem himself, he felt a dramatic measure must be taken. He wanted his fellow countrymen to see this report.

Ellsberg narrates his own story with intelligence, grace, and passion. This was a wise decision on the filmmakers’ part, as it personalizes the situation for viewers who might not be sympathetic to Ellsberg’s plight from afar. I’ve always felt that it’s better to hear an anti-war argument from someone who fought on the frontlines, or that it’s better to be warned of the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse by an addict. Ellsberg wasn’t just there. His hands are dirty. By telling his story in this way, it has the potential to appeal to those detractors who would love to render a “traitor” verdict before the trial had even started.

As for the filmmaking itself, Ehrlich and Goldsmith employ the dreaded—to me, at least—technique of the “Hollywood thriller recreation,” to enhance the tension of certain scenes. The problem is that this technique itself automatically reduces the tension since it feels like such a forced stylistic choice. Let’s hope I’m in the minority on this one. That said, they don’t overuse it, instead relying on stock images, footage, and Ellsberg himself to build the tension.

While The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers might not break any formal ground, it nonetheless feels like a vital time for this story to be told. And—recreations aside—Ellsberg and the filmmakers tell it very well.

— Michael Tully

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Michael Tully is an award-winning writer/director whose films have garnered widespread critical acclaim, his projects having premiered at some of the most renowned film festivals across the globe. He is also the former (and founding) editor of this site. In 2006, Michael's first feature, COCAINE ANGEL, chronicling a tragic week in the life of a young drug addict, world premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. The film immediately solidified the director as one of Filmmaker Magazine’s "25 New Faces of Independent Film,” a reputation that was reinforced a year later when his follow-up feature, SILVER JEW, a documentary capturing the late David Berman's rare musical performances in Tel Aviv, world-premiered at SXSW and landed distribution with cult indie-music label Drag City. In 2011, Michael wrote, directed, and starred in his third feature, SEPTIEN, which debuted at the 27th annual Sundance Film Festival before being acquired by IFC Films' Sundance Selects banner. A few years later, in 2014, Michael returned to Sundance with the world premiere of his fourth feature, PING PONG SUMMER, an ‘80s set coming-of-age tale that was quickly picked up for theatrical distribution by Gravitas Ventures. In 2018, Michael wrote and directed the dread-inducing genre film DON'T LEAVE HOME, which has been described as "Get Out with Catholic guilt in the Irish countryside" (IndieWire). The film premiered at SXSW and was subsequently acquired by Cranked Up Films and Shudder.

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