The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

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Genre: Documentary – Politics

DVD: Available Now

Format: DVD

Rating: PG – Mild themes and infrequent coarse language

Run Time: 84 minutes

Languages: English

Directors: Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith

Featuring: Daniel Ellsberg

Most Dangerous Man in America film award laurels

Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

The Most Dangerous Man in America catapults us to 1971 where we find America in the grip of a familiar scenario: a dirty war based on lies. And Dr. Daniel Ellsberg, one of the nation’s leading war planners, has the documents to prove it. Armed with 7000 pages of Top Secret documents; he leaks the truth about the Vietnam War to The New York Times and risks life in prison to end the war he helped plan. It is a story that held the world in its grip, with daily headlines, the top story on the nightly news for weeks on end.

What makes a dedicated Cold Warrior throw away his high-level access, his career, his friends, and risk life in prison for a mere CHANCE at helping to end the war? The Daniel Ellsberg in the first part of the film is a brilliant, complex man wrestling with his conscience over his role in a war he sees first as a problem to be solved, then as a hopeless stalemate, finally as a crime to be stopped at any costs.

Ellsberg’s leak of the top-secret Pentagon Papers to The New York Times sets into motion an extraordinary series of events. The Nixon Administration first goes after the nation’s press, resulting in a First Amendment battle that, within two weeks, ends up in the Supreme Court. Ellsberg goes underground to avoid a nationwide FBI manhunt. When he emerges, he is hailed as a hero, accused of being a traitor, ostracized by friends, and finds himself on trial for his life.

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Most Dangerous Man in America Daniel EllsbergNixon and Kissinger

Published Reviews

Anthony Carey, Time Off
Directors: Judith Ehrlich, Rick Goldsmith
Starring: Daniel Ellsberg, Patricia Ellsberg, John Dean
Review by Anthony Carew
The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg And The Pentagon Papers is an Oscar-nominated documentary that recounts the honourable sedition of its titular protagonist. Ellsberg made public classified documents that, in plain black-and-white, chronicled 20 years of institutionalised lying by the American government in regards to its foreign policy; specifically in the lead-up to the Vietnam War. Ellsberg is lionised herein as a veritable hero, a governmental worker – a veteran of the marines, the Pentagon, and special ops – who made the astonishing decision to “put conscience ahead of career”.
Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s documentary never pretends, however, to be a work of unbiased journalism: it’s based on a pair of its subject’s memoirs, and Ellsberg himself serves as the picture’s noble narrator. In contrast to its hero – handsome, well-spoken, a veritable beacon of virtue – the film plumps up a suitably villainous villain: everyone’s favourite runamok “imperial President”, Richard Nixon. Nixon is, as always, an easy stooge.
Here, the way the filmmakers play their hero against the villain comes off as more broadly comic than subtly-manipulative: the smooth voice-overs of the regal Ellsberg contrasting with the red-faced rantings and ravings of a covertly-recorded Nixon, swearing like a sailor and bristling with the kind of hot-headed fury of his satirical Futurama character. In such, there’s a people-pleasin’ quality to The Most Dangerous Man In America – hey, that Academy Award nomination wasn’t for nothing – that seems a little too easy.
With 40 years of hindsight, it’s plain to see the Vietnam debacle with clarity; to, too, make the parallels between American invasions, both covert and overt, that have occurred since in Latin America and the Middle East. To me, even the triumphs of first-amendment crusading chronicled herein feel a little like empty victories. Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers believing that, if the American people knew they’d been duped, fed phoney reasons for continuing a farkakte foreign war, that they’d rise up in a sea of righteous indignation, topple the government, and end this war pronto.
And, yet, mere months after Ellsberg shook the skeletons from the Nixon closet, the American populace re-elected him in a landslide. The parallels between ’72 and ’04 are too obvious to belabour, but, this decade, when history repeated itself, it hardly seemed like a farce; just another tragedy perpetrated by the world’s self-appointed most powerful nation.

Andrew L. Urban, Urban Cinefile
It was Henry Kissinger who dubbed Daniel Ellsberg the most dangerous man in America, after Ellsberg leaked ‘the Pentagon papers’ – the secret policy-making communications about the start and continuation of the Vietnam War. The first secret is unveiled less than four minutes into the film: the US navy was not attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 by North Vietnamese torpedoes, a false alarm that was negated before the war order from President Johnson.

Before the Oscar nominated film is halfway through, Daniel Ellsberg relates through barely suppressed tears, how his life split in two when he came to the decision that he had to make a reversal – a total reversal – of his initial position, and try to end the war. It’s one of the milestone moments in the film, which gathers its material and presents it in such a compelling way that is at once engaging and brutal – brutal for its impact on our sense of decency as the litany of lies cascades into the war – and the liars are not just the minor players, but four Presidents of the United States.

Often much like a spy thriller, the film is told by and through Ellsberg, adding authentic weight and personal impact to the revelations. The enormity of the story juxtaposed with the notion of one man singlehandedley changing history is irresistibly powerful. This together with the roles played by his wife and young son at the time, put down the extra layers of humanity that drive the film’s insistent message: do the right thing and be true to yourself.

And another message reverberates: Ellsberg offered the Pentagon papers to congessmen who had been against the war: none dared use it. The ingrained fear of taking a stand against the US Administration over major international policy prevented them.

It’s a superbly assembled, edited and structured doco with the power to enthuse us about the same system that brings it shame. A collapse of integrity, as one of the Nixon White House ‘plumbers’ Egil Krogh puts it, is balanced by the American justice system coming to the rescue of integrity. But what a great price was paid.
Read the full review here

Leigh Paatsh, The Courier Mail
Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once called Daniel Ellsberg ‘the most dangerous man in America.’ The reason why concerns an honourable act of treason by Ellsberg credited with definitively turning the tide of public opinion against the Vietnam War.

In the early 1970s, Ellsberg achieved worldwide notoriety for masterminding the strategic leaking of what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. A comprehensively damning collection of more than 7,000 pages of top-secret documents, the Pentagon Papers proved that the Nixon administration (and those of several US Presidents before) had actively lied to the American people about why the Vietnam War had to happen. And why so many soldiers had to die.

A recent Best Documentary Oscar nominee, The Most Dangerous Man in America has Ellsberg narrating his own amazing story. A former Marine who became a key White House military advisor, Ellsberg had a deep understanding of the complex political machinations propelling the Vietnam conflict.After spearheading a marathon research project that constituted the bulk of what later became the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg realised he could no longer participate in the deliberate deception of the American people.

Radicalised by exposure to an underground anti-war movement about to go overground, Ellsberg took it upon himself to copy (with aid of his children!) and circulate the Pentagon Papers to any willing takers in the mainstream media.

The significance of this action becomes all too apparent once the doco hits the point where Ellsberg must face the music in court. Facing a lengthy spell in prison and the certain end of a brilliant career, Ellsberg sticks to the courage of his convictions come what may.

While The Most Dangerous Man in America does let its distinguished array of talking heads ramble on too long, Ellsberg emerges as one of the great conscientious objectors in modern history. We could use a few more of his kind these days.

Bernard Hemingway, Cinephilia
The years 1965-75 with their political and social upheavals have proven to be a rich field for American documentary makers. Following suit, Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith have taken a relatively dry subject and made it both a revealing historical document and a rewarding insight into human nature.

Overlapping with Errol Morris’s 2004 Oscar-winner, The Fog Of War, insofar as both deal intimately with US involvement in the Vietnam war, the title refers, somewhat hyperbolically, to Ellsberg’s status as a purported threat to national security. Once instrumental in formulating America’s military strategy in South Vietnam, in revulsion against the war, he leaked top-secret Pentagon Papers detailing America’s long-standing covert involvement in the country. The appellation is rather ironic as it was an attempt by the political right to slur Ellsberg as un-American but since their vindictiveness led indirectly to the Nixon Administration’s ultimate and long-overdue demise as a result of Watergate, for them it proved to be true. The Most Dangerous Man In America deserves commendation if only because it ensures that Ellsberg’s contribution to the peace movement and, perhaps even more significantly, freedom of speech in America, will not be forgotten, or for many of us to whom he may be only a distantly-recognized name, acknowledged.

Besides being a detailed and gripping behind-the-scenes account of the actual chain of events, like last year’s The Cove, the film is also the story of one man’s crisis of conscience and the life-changing decision he made to right the error of his ways. When at the film’s end we see Ellsberg, now in his 70s, being arrested for demonstrating against the Iraq war (presumably during the Bush years) it is both heartening and inspiring to know that he has remained true to his commitment. Even if after 40 years the core subject-matter of Ellsberg’s political conversion and his act of defiance do not seem so vital, his reflective voice-over and the comments of various associates, needless to say all thoughtful and articulate people, give this film a much broader value as a study of the power of ideology and the nature of human psychology, those often crudely powerful realities that underpin the deceptions and rationalizations of politics.
Read the full review here

Sandra Hall, Sydney Morning Herald
Chauvel ROBERT ELLSBERG still sounds shell-shocked when recalling his appearance at the treason trial of his father, Daniel, in 1971. At 15 he was forced to testify before a grand jury who had the power to put his father in prison for the rest of his life.

Knowledge is power but it can be an intolerable burden if the secrets you keep are burning a hole in your conscience. That’s the way Daniel Ellsberg, a US defence analyst, was feeling in 1969. He had just become privy to a top-secret official report detailing the unpalatable history of America’s involvement with Vietnam, all the way back to the Truman administration’s sponsorship of the French invasion in 1945.

This study had been commissioned by the Defence Secretary, Robert McNamara. Since Ellsberg had worked for him as a Pentagon analyst, he knew how McNamara felt about the war. In private, McNamara despaired about its outcome. In public, he declared that victory was possible.

It was a practised strategy. As the report outlined, a series of US presidents had been just as duplicitous. JFK had told the world that the US would only be sending advisers when he was already planning a military follow-up, and Lyndon Johnson had expanded the US presence after promising he would do no such thing.

Ellsberg, too, had once believed in the war. Not only was he a strategist, he had served as a Marine company commander. But he had argued against the bombing of the north. Now he defined America’s part in hostilities as ”unjustified homicide”.

Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, who directed this feature documentary, are not out to question the wisdom or the morality of Ellsberg’s decision to copy and release the secret report’s 47 volumes, which were to become notorious as ”the Pentagon Papers”.

It’s his story, drawn partly from his own book about his actions and their aftermath. He also appears on screen – a still-handsome 79-year-old who harbours no regrets. Yet the film avoids hagiography mainly because he is so frank when it comes to the thornier aspects of his whistleblowing.

He knew that some very close friends among his fellow analysts would regard him as a traitor. And still he had no qualms, believing that E.M. Forster was wrong with his argument that it is better to betray your country than your friends. In this case the Forster policy, he says, would simply have cost more lives.

More startling is his admission that he had his young children help him with the mammoth task of photocopying the files. Even though his ex-wife didn’t want them implicated, Robert, his younger brother and their 10-year-old sister were all recruited. For Ellsberg, the private and the public had conflated so thoroughly that he thought that his children should be given the chance to be in on history.

Ehrlich and Goldsmith have made an elegantly evocative film of these events using black-and-white footage, playful little bursts of animation, which are strangely at odds with the prevailing moral seriousness, and photographs of rallies, protests and White House policy meetings with the Nixon tapes as soundtrack. The camera takes a forensic approach to these photographs, gently gliding over them as if the past were an underwater realm setting off a ripple effect which inevitably impinges on our own world.

One of the most heartening parts of the story centres on the performance of the media.

When Ellsberg could find no senator brave enough to read the report on the floor of the Senate, The New York Times stepped in, risking Nixon’s fury and a White House lawsuit to run an extract.

The night before it went to press, Ellsberg persuaded a few friends to come with him to a screening of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. No doubt he identified with both outlaws. But in the end, the treason charges were dismissed after it was learnt that Nixon’s men, G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt, had broken into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office looking for incriminating information. The Watergate era had arrived.
Read the full review here

Michael Bodey, The Australian
To some Daniel Ellsberg is a hero, to others a traitor. A new documentary makes no secret of its position THIS month, at least, Daniel Ellsberg’s tale doesn’t seem so extraordinary.

Private (formerly specialist) Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old US Army intelligence analyst, is under arrest for leaking confidential video of a

2007 US helicopter strike in Iraq that killed insurgents, civilians and two Reuters journalists, and of the 2009 Granai airstrike that killed up to 140 civilians. Julian Assange, Australian-born founder of the video’s broadcaster, WikiLeaks, is in hiding and believed to be being hunted by the US government.

Meanwhile, Australian news organisations are regularly battling government agencies about sources of embarrassing or damaging leaks, including at present this newspaper.

Ellsberg is perhaps the most famous whistleblower. The case of the former war planner who leaked damaging confidential information about the genesis and planning for the Vietnam war, a secret history that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, is instructive even if few have learned from it.

Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s Academy Award-nominated documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, is clear about its verdict on Ellsberg’s actions, which led indirectly to the Watergate scandal and resignation of Richard Nixon. Others have been just as clear in their judgment, seeing his actions as traitorous or noble.

Ehrlich, who was recently in Australia as a guest of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, says she has been accused of hero worship. “I’m very clear that I support what Ellsberg did, I’m not of mixed mind,” she says. “I sort of have a hard time with the concept of objectivity when it comes to filmmaking, anyway. I don’t think anyone’s objective. Everyone comes with their own arguments, with their own background, experience and way of thinking about the world. I am a supporter of non-violence and there are not enough models of that and there are plenty of models for violence.

“Daniel made that transition from being a war planner to being a war resister and I think we should have more descriptions of that kind of transition.”

Ehrlich and Goldsmith’s case for regarding Ellsberg as a hero is helped greatly by Ellsberg himself, who narrates the documentary in an authoritative, intelligent voice and is appealing and emotive in his interviews. Against the archival recordings of Nixon’s rants, it’s no contest for the viewer’s hearts and minds.

“It’s kind of surprising because he’s so articulate and, when he does appear, he grabs people’s attention,” says Ehrlich of her subject, who is “remarkably talented in voiceover”.

Even more remarkably, Ellsberg was also “revealing and willing to open up in a way we didn’t realise would happen”.

The film is a coming-out for the 69-year-old who hasn’t been employed since the vigorous campaign against him by the Nixon administration and his later trial, which was thrown out in 1973. (His second wife, Patricia Marx, had a substantial inheritance on which they lived, although her primary inheritance as daughter of the founder of toy manufacturer Marx Toys was taken from her after Ellsberg’s revelations.) Ellsberg has remained outside the mainstream for some time and his opinion on political matters has not been as sought after as one might think. Until now.

Of course there was no shortage of people asking him to appear in a documentary, but he refrained until he’d told the story himself. After he published Secrets: a Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers in 2002, at least three documentary filmmakers were circling. These included one of the most intimidating, Errol Morris, who had interviewed him for The Fog of War, a Vietnam war mea culpa from one of Ellsberg’s bosses, former US defence secretary Robert McNamara. Morris, director of The Thin Blue Line and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, planned to make a narrative feature about Ellsberg. That hasn’t eventuated, but he cleared the way for Ehrlich and Goldsmith.

Ehrlich had made the documentary about World War II conscientious objectors, The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight it, and Goldsmith two documentaries, Everyday Heroes and the Academy Award-nominated Tell The Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press, a portrait of an iconoclastic journalist who was a central observer at some of the biggest news events of the 20th century.

Ehrlich believes Ellsberg expected the duo, given their handling of previous subject matter, would “give him a fair shake”.

“Not that we’d bend over backwards . . . but that we would not be too critical of him as others had been,” she says. “He had been burned before [most particularly by Tom Wells’s harsh book, Wild Man: The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg] and was a little cautious. He understood that in principle we were in agreement with him.”

Ellsberg split so many people because of who he was and what he became. Very rarely does anyone effect such a personal transformation, let alone convince others to follow.

The intellectually gifted Ellsberg had a brilliant career through Harvard University to the US Marine Corps, the Rand Corporation think tank and the Pentagon. He became known as one of the Pentagon’s more effervescent thinkers and obsessed practitioners. He even spent time on the front lines of Vietnam to give a more informed perspective on US progress, which was taken on board by his superiors, including McNamara, but ignored by president Lyndon Johnson.

The disappointment of having his work and advice rebuffed was made worse by confidential accounts he obtained of the US’s imperial and imperious involvement in Indochina. Ellsberg became a non-believer. “There’s something about the transformation of the marine Dan Ellsberg to the anti-war Dan Ellsberg that somehow attracts people to him,” says Ehrlich. “I’ve had quite a lot of experience with the subject of people who refuse to fight and people in the military are not the ones who are looking to go to war. They know what war is, they know it’s not such a great idea; it’s easy to go to war when it doesn’t involve you.”

Indeed, Ehrlich’s documentary shows in some detail how the only people who appeared not to appreciate the horror of the Vietnam war were the three presidents presiding over it: John F. Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. Even the hawkish Henry Kissinger, then national security adviser to Nixon, appears as a voice of reason.

“We certainly didn’t mean to make Kissinger look good,” Ehrlich says, laughing. “That was not our intention, it’s just he looks good next to the irrational Nixon. At least he looks rational even if he’s not doing it necessarily for the right reasons, but he knows dropping a nuclear bomb is not going to be good for Nixon’s popularity.”

The film shows Ellsberg’s internal battle, largely sparked by a girlfriend’s chiding, while delivering some drama in the way he surreptitiously photocopies the 7000-page report with the help of his children, and in the way The New York Times formulates, and then nearly doesn’t deliver, one of the scoops of the century.

Most significantly, it displays Ellsberg’s courage, when for many years his act was seen to be motivated by vainglory. “He’s a hero to most Americans, I think, at least a hero to the progressives and people on the Left and the anti-war movement,” Ehrlich says. “He’s very respected and adored by people who respected the act of courage he did and feel that he really made a difference and changed the landscape and political agenda of the US at that time.”

For Ellsberg himself, the documentary has been a cleansing experience.

Ehrlich believes he feels gratified after being out in the cold for so long.

“And it’s given him a platform he deserves, he’s got a perspective on the current wars that’s unique,” she says.

That said, consecutive US debacles in South America and the Middle East are largely left untouched in The Most Dangerous Man in America. Sadly, little seems to have been learned from the events of 30 years ago. You can almost hear the mea culpas and tales of courage that will form the documentaries of the future.

Ehrlich expects “someone will stand up and be a Dan Ellsberg because we’re certainly in the same situation”.

But it hasn’t become any easier to speak out. She recently attended with Ellsberg a panel discussion in New York about whistleblowers, attended by New York cop Frank Serpico and former FBI agent Coleen Rowley, who after September 11 shone a light on US intelligence mismanagement.

“It’s moving to see the strength they got from one another and how outside the mainstream the whistleblower is and how much you give up to do that and the pariah you become,” Ehrlich says.

“It was wonderful to see the sustenance they get from one another. But it’s a tough road.”
Read the review here.

At the Movies- Margaret Pomeranz & David Stratton
Margaret4 and a half star movie rating David4 star movie rating
Review by Margaret Pomeranz
Now to the Oscar-nominated documentary THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. It was Henry Kissinger who gave Ellsberg that moniker after he leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971. The Pentagon Papers were a top secret report about the history of the United States’ role in Indo-China, commissioned by Robert MacNamara who was Secretary of Defence under President Johnson in the 1960’s, the time when the war in Vietnam was seeing a frightening escalation. Ellsberg worked as a Pentagon top policy analyst under both Johnson and Nixon, advising on the conduct of the war…

Ellsberg became increasingly interested and involved in the peace movement, which was completely at odds with the work he was doing…

For many of you who didn’t live through those years of the Vietnam War this documentary is damning and revealing. But it’s actually much more than the story of a man caught between loyalty to his job and colleagues and the government of the time and loyalty to his country. When President Nixon tried to suppress the New York Times from continuing to print the papers, the press joined forces against the government, leading to a Supreme Court decision that is significant today and a court case in which Ellsberg was tried and which ultimately led to the impeachment of the President.

Apart from anything else, it’s a very moving document of a period of history in which this country was intimately involved. Impeccably made by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith who’ve made great use of archival material and structured contemporary interviews beautifully, to make sense out of a complex scenario.

Further comments


DAVID: Yes, that’s one of the great strengths of this documentation, I think, that it does make a very, very complex story very clear.


DAVID: And it does so through all sorts of means. I think the least successful is the use of little animated inserts.

MARGARET: Yes, they’re not the greatest but I…

DAVID: Which I thought it was a bit disappointing that they used those, but apart from that I think they really do it really very well, and there was so many amazing revelations. those of us were around then and remember when all this was happening, it was astonishing to learn that Ellsberg got his children to help him photocopy these top secret papers in his office at night. That was just extraordinary.

MARGARET: But what was even more extraordinary is Nixon wanting to drop a nuclear bomb on North Vietnam and Kissinger being the one to talk him out of it.

DAVID: I know.

MARGARET: I mean, worrying about his reputation in the future. Thank goodness for Kissinger, I’ve got to tell you.

DAVID: Yes. Obviously it’s a very political documentary.


DAVID: Some people will see Ellsberg as a traitor at the time, others as a great hero. And the film just tells the story and…

MARGARET: Well, it’s also a story about the importance of freedom of the press.

DAVID: Absolutely, yes.


DAVID: Yes, that’s a very, very important part of it.

MARGARET: And you wonder whether that would happen today.

DAVID: You do wonder. You do wonder.

MARGARET: I think this has got so much relevance to today and yesterday and it means a lot to me. I am giving it four and a half stars.

DAVID: It’s very good. I’m giving it four.

Watch the review and Margaret’s interview with director Judith Ehrlich here

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