The Most Dangerous Man in America
Documentary about foreign policy lies in a runup to war feels entirely too familiar
Of all the brutally honest things the now septuagenarian Daniel Ellsberg says about himself in directors Judith Ehrlich and Rock Goldsmith's The Most Dangerous Man in America, none cuts deeper than, "You come to realize that the fear of being cut out from the group of people you respect and whose respect you want, that keeps people participating in anything, no matter how terrible." What makes it so poignant—aside from the look on Ellsberg's face that makes you suspect it was even harder to arrive at than to say out loud—is not only it's self-critical force but how ordinarily pragmatic it is. As Dangerous chronicles, Ellsberg was a man who not only risked his career but the very idea of who he thought he was when in 1971, at the age of 40, he started taking portions of the United States—Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense—a Department of Defense-requested study of U.S. involvement in Indochina that spanned five presidencies, dubbed the "Pentagon Papers"—and, over a period of months, photocopied all its more than 7,000 pages with the help of a friend and, occasionally, his children, before leaking it in parts to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and, eventually 17 total media outlets. The thing is, the above Ellsberg quote doesn't feel like a man trying to explain why he did what he felt to be the right thing. It feels like the mid-life epiphany of a man who ever since considers what it means to try to do the right thing every time he gets out of bed in the morning.
Dangerous identifies on whose side it falls right out of the gate: Ellsberg himself provides the voice-over narration to his own story. Ehrlich and Goldsmith avoid outright hagiography, though, by embracing Ellsberg's self-critical tone. The title is what Ellsberg was dubbed at the time—then-President Richard Nixon had much more colorful names for him as captured on tape—but even when being called a traitor, you get the impression no person or institution was going to be harder on Ellsberg than himself. What fascinates about his story is not so much the why and how he pulled off this leak—which eventually led to one of the landmark First Amendment cases, New York Times Co. v. United States, on which the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the press—but how he got to that point in the first place. As Dangerous recounts, Daniel Ellsberg was an ex-Marine, Harvard University economics Ph.D. who went to work at the military/foreign policy think tank RAND Corp. before going to work under Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1964. He was the hawk's hawk, the man who believed in fighting for democracy in Southeast Asia, a man who in 1965 asked to be sent to Vietnam to serve two years as a civilian.
That experience, though, and what he saw in the political decision-making apparata going on once he returned in 1967 and into the 1968 presidential election, made him begin to change his mind. As he says, remembering in voiceover, it wasn't so much that the he felt like we were fighting the wrong side: "We were the wrong side."
Ellsberg's journey from hawk to dove adds a necessary element of human fallibility to the Pentagon Papers tale, the leak and Ellsberg's trial for which occupies the bulk of Dangerous's 92 minutes. Although only 39 years ago, it's remarkable how much of this story still surprises—and, frustratingly, how much of it resembles far too much recent history.