In an age of politics that have become little more than partisan sniping and journalism that’s often nothing but pompous punditry, it’s certainly good, especially for today’s younger generation, to be reminded of a time when people in government took principled stands that involved personal risk and journalists were willing to face down administration threats to support the public’s right to know the most unpleasant truths (as well as a Supreme Court that actually reached decisions based on constitutional bases rather than ideology). This documentary about Daniel Ellsberg, the erstwhile national security researcher who surreptitiously copied and distributed to news organizations the so-called Pentagon Papers, the top-secret report that documented the government’s deliberate deception of the people over the conflict, fills the bill.
Ellsberg was a controversial figure when he leaked the document in 1971, of course—it was then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who called him the most dangerous man in America, while President Nixon not only ordered his prosecution but used the courts to try to stop publication of the papers—and he’s still one, his forty-year career in activism only exacerbating the hostility of those who believe his actions were wrong from the beginning. And this film makes no bones about what side the makers come down on. It focuses resolutely on Ellsberg, who effectively narrates the story himself and is heralded as a hero by many of those interviewed, from Howard Zinn to John Dean. But in the process it also celebrates the staffs of the newspapers, beginning with the New York Times and continuing to others across the continent, that challenged the government’s efforts to suppress publication by taking up portions of the text serially, forcing the administration to play something like journalistic whack-a-mole.
And the filmmakers use a broad variety of techniques to make the story revealing and exciting, even for those oldsters who know perfectly well how it will turn out. They begin, of course, with the political and legal firestorm that attended the publication, and them go back to offer a virtual biography of Ellsberg, culminating in his appointment as a member of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s staff. In that capacity he actually helped fashion reports justifying the bombing of North Vietnam, recalling his work in finding Viet Cong war crimes to do so. In the process, however, he became increasingly disenchanted with administration policy and stood with foot in both camps, doing his job but also joining protesters. The use of stills and archival footage here is expert.
The picture then comes to Ellsberg’s decision to use his position to surreptitiously remove the Rand Commission report, photocopy it and circulate it to the media. This portion of “Dangerous Man” takes on the tone of an espionage thriller, complete with reenactments and observations from members of Ellsberg’s family (his children helped in the copying work, and an encounter with a cop adds a note of humorous danger). It all culminates in a barrage of information about the media reaction to release of the document and the Nixon Administration’s futile attempt to suppress publication and pursue Ellsberg in the courts. Another heroic figure emerges here—anti-war Alaska Senator Mike Gravel, who took it upon himself to read portions of the text on the Senate floor, and was careful to protect his staff from possible legal trouble in getting the document from Ellsberg. A coda sketches Ellsberg’s life since its most notorious episode.
“The Most Dangerous Man in America” is certainly one-sided, but even those on the other should be able to appreciate it as a portrait of a man who made a moral choice that, whether one agrees with it or not, was unquestionably courageous. That kind of courage is rare enough in public life today that remembering an instance of it from the past is a salutary experience.