The Most Dangerous Man in America (Review)

First Run Features, 2010, Not Rated

Aug 11, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Released just in time to (no doubt coincidently) synch with WikiLeaks' recent publication of the U.S. Military's Afghanistan war logs, the DVD release of co-directors Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s Oscar-nominated documentary looks at the events that compelled Daniel Ellsberg, a former Marine and defense department staffer, to leak the Pentagon Papers to

The New York Times

in an effort to stop what he deemed an unjust Vietnam War. His decision — which some called heroic, others treasonous — would ultimately lead to our withdrawal from Vietnam after the resignation of then-President Richard Nixon and affirm the media’s important role as governmental watchdogs.

(Nixon went all the way to the Supreme Court in an effort to stop publication of the Papers. By contrast, President Barack Obama attempted to defuse any controversy by saying nothing new was revealed in the WikiLeaks leak, a largely true statement that illuminates both the media's waning impact and/or the public's lack of interest in such seemingly damning information.)

Ehrlich and Goldsmith employ various Errol Morris-esque cinematic techniques (including an evocative, mood-altering score and sound design), a host of vintage photos, audiotapes and video footage and new interviews to compellingly re-create a period in our history that has undeniable parallels to our current entanglements in the Middle East. But it’s Ellsberg’s articulate, affecting first-person narration and unique personal history that hook the viewer, giving the film an intimacy and emotional depth lacking in most political/historical documentaries.

The directors do their best to stay objective, but the story’s central question — should one betray friends and/or country for the greater good? — is undeniably tilted when Ellsberg’s point of view is combated on the other side by the Nixon audiotapes, in which the former president comes off as a vitriolic, axe-grinding, war-mongering man with little sympathy for the innocent people who where killed to save American face in Vietnam (or, as Nixon called it, that “shit-ass little country”).

That we seem to be dealing with many of the same issues 40 years later makes

The Most Dangerous Man in America

both vital and depressing. Grade: A-