Sunday, March 28, 2010

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

Text, lies and audiotape

by Thomas Delapa

He was called a traitor by some. A hero by many others. Henry Kissinger branded him “the most dangerous man in America.” Kissinger’s boss, Richard Nixon, was blunter, telling all the president’s men, “We’ve got to get that sonofabitch.”

An illuminating, Oscar-nominated flashback, The Most Dangerous in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers gets its subject all right, along with that long-running ‘60s and ‘70s show known as the Vietnam War. From the Pentagon Papers to the Watergate tapes, filmmakers Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith politically rarely play it safe.

A major, yet unlikely, figure in the epochal anti-war movement, Ellsberg began the 1960s as a high-level analyst at California’s Rand Corporation. When JFK’s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara drafted him for a Pentagon job, Ellsberg had become one of the handful of “best and brightest” minds that served to escalate the war. An ex-Marine, the hawkish Ellsberg went so far as to fly to Vietnam and join the ground fight for a time.

Like many Americans, Ellsberg came to an about-face on the war, famously concluding that “we weren’t on the wrong side—we were the wrong side.” Ellsberg’s radicalization may have come partly through the influence of this second wife, Patricia, but at least as much through his discovery of a top-secret Rand report on the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict, dating back to the 1950s.

For Ellsberg—as well as for his “co-conspirator” Tony Russo—the 7000-page Pentagon Papers was a bombshell, spelling out a campaign of lies and deceptions that spanned both Republican and Democratic administrations. Ellsberg considered it his patriotic duty to make the papers public, even if it meant going to prison.

At its gripping best, The Most Dangerous Man unfolds like a spy novel, equal parts James Bond and Woodward and Bernstein. At one end of the power spectrum are two imperial presidents, Johnson and Nixon, who both sought to win—and justify—an unpopular war at all costs. LBJ went as far to blow up the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident into Remember the Maine proportions. Nixon privately told his inner circle that no “shit-ass little country” was going to beat the U.S. The resulting policy would be, in Ellsberg’s words, “the most ridiculously disproportionate bombing campaign in the history of the world.”

While clearly told from Ellsberg’s perspective, this documentary includes interviews with the likes of former Nixon aides John Dean and Bud Krough, one of the notorious Watergate “plumbers.” You won’t need to follow the money to see the slippery connection between Ellsberg’s leaking of the Pentagon Papers and the eventual Watergate debacle that would sink the Nixon presidency.

Equally comic and chilling, deftly selected excerpts from the once-secret Nixon White House tapes add another track to the compelling mix. Contemplating the use of nukes in North Vietnam, Nixon scolds Kissinger, “I want you to think big, Henry, for chrissakes,”

Among Ehrlich and Goldsmith’s gallery of heroes are the newspapers (starting with the New York Times) that refused to bow to the Nixon administration’s pressure, and went ahead and published the Pentagon Papers. How ironic that many of those same papers today have either folded or are fighting for their lives. Here’s a sad scoop: “Stop the presses” has taken on new meaning in the Internet era.

Today, at a spry 69, Ellsberg is as certain as ever of the moral and patriotic justifications for his actions. Over the decades, he’s been arrested over 70 times for his anti-war, pro-environmental protests. The one-time “most dangerous man” is still making waves. In a war that the U.S. lost (and cost the lives of over 2 million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans), Ellsberg may be counted among the few who’ve attained a measure of both peace and honor.


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