The ’60s are the gift that keeps on giving, at least as far as documentary filmmakers (of all generations, so don’t go blaming aging boomers) are concerned. In just the last few years, we’ve had nonfiction films about the Weather Underground, Woodstock, the Chicago 10 trial, Hunter Thompson (he came to fame in ’66, with the publication of Hells Angels), the Doors, the Vietnam War and William Kunstler. It’s pretty obvious that they represent a collective roar against the public apathy and powerlessness of the Bush years, but also something more: Diligent, well-researched pushback against the revisionist history promulgated by the conservative and mainstream media, namely that the ’60s’ lasting legacy is drugs and sex.
Berkeley filmmakers Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers centers on a man who was the antithesis of a weed-happy hippie or free-love opportunist. His incredibly principled and gutsy action against the Vietnam War, consequently, is impossible to dismiss or refute. An Ivy League-educated Marine with on-the-ground service in Vietnam, Ellsberg was a pro-war analyst in the State Dept. and then the Rand Corporation as the war heated up. But gradually, with his girlfriend (and future wife) Patricia arguing relentlessly against the war, Ellsberg came to see its immorality.
More than anything, what he was forced to confront were his government’s lies. They were evident from the Pentagon’s massive secret history of Vietnam, which delineated the gap between what bureaucrats and politicians knew and what they told the American people. Ellsberg made copies of the voluminous documents and slipped them to numerous newspapers and Congressmen. And that’s when Most Dangerous Man gets really interesting.
The film is structured, paced and scored like a thriller, and it works beautifully. It helps that Ellsberg (who’s made the East Bay his home for many years) narrates — mostly passages taken from his own writings — giving us an insider’s tense, profoundly thoughtful point of view. As we’re drawn in so intimately, we can’t help but ask ourselves what we would have done in the same situation. (I’m reminded, completely inappropriately, of the classic question Moe, Larry or Curly would ask each other: “Are we men or are we mice?” The answer was always, “Mice!” Then again, maybe it wasn’t the Stooges.)
The other factor that puts Most Dangerous Man over is its timeliness. The major challenge that historical documentaries face — as even Ken Burns will admit — is getting contemporary viewers to see their relevance. That’s not remotely a problem with the Ellsberg doc. The bloody and costly pursuit of an unattainable victory in Vietnam has its current parallels in Iraq and potentially Afghanistan. Why isn’t there the same outcry? If the draft was still in effect, I daresay tens of thousands of Americans would be in the streets. That there isn’t and they’re not does not negate the similarities in the wars.
Meanwhile, the film devotes considerable time to the internal debates and ultimate decisions of the New York Times and other newspapers that published excerpts of the Pentagon Papers in the face of threats from Richard Nixon’s Justice Dept. Listening to these witnesses discuss the responsibilities of a free press in a democracy with the utmost seriousness is inspiring, frankly. Of course, it also throws into sharp relief those same papers’ abdication of their responsibility in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
As gripping as any political whodunit that Hollywood has made in the last 20 years, starring a patriot and hero who puts Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne to shame, The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers is a splendid contribution to the burgeoning history of the ’60s on film. It’s also, unfortunately, a movie for our times.
The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers opens Friday, February 19, 2010 at Landmark Theatres in San Francisco and Berkeley.