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

This straightforward history lesson casts Daniel Ellsberg and his leaked Pentagon Papers as the first shot in the war that brought down the Nixon regime.

After seeing Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's earnest, smart documentary about Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers controversy, viewers not old enough when it unfolded might wonder why the story has played such a minor role in popular histories of the era. This informative account deserves more than the very limited theatrical release it's likely to get.

Ellsberg's story (which he narrates large parts of) is similar to that of many intellectuals recruited into Washington's cadre of wunderkinds only to find themselves with the blood of Vietnam all over their hands. Brilliant and competitive, Ellsberg was a top policy analyst in the military-industrial complex more interested in game theory and puzzle-solving than waging war. Symbolically, the Gulf of Tonkin incident erupted on his very first day at the Pentagon under Robert McNamara.

From then on, Ellsberg—a lean and professorial type with a David Strathairn gravity to him—was propelled deeper and deeper into planning of the war he later came to despise. A true-blue anti-communist and former Marine, Ellsberg was no desk wonk, but headed into the South Vietnamese deltas and jungles to dig up data firsthand, even if it meant going into actual combat. Ellsberg ultimately learned enough about the war—particularly how badly it was going and how inhumanely it was being fought—that he couldn't ignore his doubts any longer.

Though their visuals tend toward hokey reenactments and no-frills talking-head dialogue, the filmmakers do an astounding job relating how Ellsberg brought the Pentagon Papers (which laid out in plain language how the Pentagon and White House had been lying through their teeth to the public about the war) to light. From smuggling the thousands of top-secret documents out of the Rand Corporation, to the breathtaking race to publish them in more newspapers than the government could get injunctions against (vitriolic audiotapes reveal a vicious Nixon raging in full splutter, "We've got to get this son of a bitch!"), it's a thrilling journalistic drama, easily the equal of Deep Throat.

If nothing else, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (the title comes from Henry Kissinger) strongly makes the point that without Ellsberg's breach in the dam, Nixon might never have been paranoid enough to get his team of plumbers to raid Ellsberg's doctor's office, which laid the groundwork for their later break-ins at the Watergate.

Although visually a minimally budgeted public television-style documentary (if only Errol Morris had wanted to tell Ellsberg's story as a follow-up to The Fog of War), The Most Dangerous Man offers a brisk and eye-opening approach to recent history.
-Nielsen Business Media