At age 79, Daniel Ellsberg is getting the last guffaw. The lying, conniving American presidents responsible for our murderous Vietnam policy are moldering in their graves. Ellsberg is still active and vocal, even cheery, as he's hauled off in a police van for protesting the war in Iraq. What's more, he has a fabulous current forum for his views: The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, for which he's an adviser, a frequent talking head, and also the off-screen narrator. And he's achieved a new credibility now that this important, sometimes dramatically thrilling documentary by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith has been nominated for an Oscar.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers | Directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith | Written by Ehrlich, Goldsmith, Michael Chandler, and Lawrence Lerew | with Daniel Ellsberg, Patricia Ellsberg, Tony Russo, Howard Zinn, Hedrick Smith, and John Dean | First Run Features | 94 minutes
Interview: Daniel Ellsberg. By Chris Faraone.
But who is this Daniel Ellsberg? What makes the dude so dangerous?
Well, let's catapult back in time . . .
As he's the first to admit, Ellsberg wasn't always a danger. For years, he was a typical individual, politically ignorant at first, and then, when politically knowledgeable, keeping his trap shut to appease his peers and bosses. A Harvard grad with remarkable Paul Newman–ish looks, he became a cocky Marine officer in the late 1950s, happy as a lark commanding his plebian battalion. As a civilian, he slithered upward, getting recruited for the staff of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. He was a liberal Cold War true believer camped out in John F. Kennedy's Camelot. Life in early-'60s Washington was A-OK.
It was Vietnam that blew apart his smug convictions. He watched as JFK and, far more, LBJ, fibbed through their molars about what the North Vietnamese Commies were doing, and why the American military should bolster the puppet South Vietnamese government. Ellsberg traveled to Vietnam and saw the escalating battles up close. Although he and McNamara soldiered on as self-muzzled loyalists, by the mid '60s, they had both reached the same lethal conclusion: this war was unwinnable. Ellsberg went farther, hoarding a secret, genuinely seditious thought: America was on the wrong side!
That's a lot of historic backstory, and The Most Dangerous Man in America sets it up with jumbled, confusing timelines. But the movie reaches its exciting heart with Ellsberg's late-'60s conversion to pacifism, and with his decision to reveal to the world the stinky truth about Vietnam. He smuggled the so-called Pentagon Papers out of the files of his employer, the Rand Corporation. These papers contained the hidden story of how the Vietnam War had been sold, by fake and fraud, to the American public.
There's a famous quote from E.M. Forster: "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." In this documentary, Ellsberg dismisses Forster's statement as folly. He consciously betrayed his friends at the Rand Corporation (at least one got fired), in the hope of saving his nation.