The Most Dangerous Man in America (Review)

Daniel Ellsberg/Pentagon Papers documentary has disturbing parallels to current day

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.)

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-

Opens March 19 at the Esquire Theatre. Check out the film's web site here.

Read Jason Gargano's interview with co-director Rick Goldsmith here.

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