The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
Directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith
Roughly forty years ago, the subject of Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers had a change of heart, spent a whole lot of late nights at a photocopier, and then set out to convince various politicians and newspapermen that his thousands of Xeroxed pages constituted a bombshell rather than a doorstopper. This is not to diminish Daniel Ellsberg's decision to leak the Pentagon Papers, which involved an enormous amount of personal and professional risk, but rather to emphasize the problem of Ehrlich and Goldsmith's decision to frame his story as a thriller in the reenactment-rich vein of Man on Wire.
The Ellsberg story is full of drama, if not much pulse-pounding suspense: the man went from being an instrumental force in planning the Vietnam War under Robert McNamara to doing everything in his power to assure the war's swift end. That meant courting incarceration by leaking the 7,000 top-secret pages in question, known as the Pentagon Papers, which provided a sweeping overview of American meddling in Vietnam, or "this shit-ass little country," as Richard Nixon once called it. The papers gave the front pages of the nation's foremost broadsheets a breath of fresh whistle-blowing. Ehrlich and Goldsmith proudly display these cover stories and then go on to engage in turgid speculation that Ellsberg's breach single-handedly drove Nixon to the brink, eventually forcing his exit from office.
The reenactments, brief but plentiful, try to make this story into a high-wire act, but their dramatic chiaroscuro also borrows liberally from the work of Errol Morris to add an element of mystery (generalized, not epistemological). Even more outrageous than the shots of shadow-enshrouded people sitting at document-strewn desks are two sequences rendered, bafflingly, in crude squiggly-line animation. (After the first one of these, it's easy to wonder what the filmmakers aren't willing to do, but thankfully they never stoop to morphing a hawk into a dove.) This unbalanced sense of formal play crops up also at the script level in the film's phased, one-by-one unveiling of the charismatic Ellsberg's eclectic hobbies: piano playing, bodysurfing, performing magic tricks for children.
Alongside the reenactments and present-day footage of Ellsberg, in his late 70s still apparently a keynote presence in anti-war circles, are interviews with some other major players in the dissemination of the Pentagon Papers, though the food for thought is uniformly sound-bite-size. Ellsberg mentor and Nobel Prize winner Thomas Schelling's observation early on that "the atomic bomb had changed so much" indicates the level of talking-head discourse Ehrlich and Goldsmith are interested in. Standing out amid the rehearsed-sounding drones is Howard Zinn, who pokes a little fun at Ellsberg's self-styled outlaw-idol persona by asserting that the man of principle had seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in theaters seven times. The rest is not so much history as near-hagiography.
Opens September 16 at Film Forum