THEY WERE called the Pentagon Papers: a 7,000-page document compiled by the RAND Corporation. They were meant to provide a euphemism-free account of how America got entangled in Vietnam’s civil war. The man who passed them on to the public in 1970 is our local hero Dr. Daniel Ellsberg.
In the beginning of The Most Dangerous Man in America, Ellsberg recalls meeting Henry Kissinger. This was years before Kissinger was to describe Ellsberg in exactly the words of this documentary’s title. What Kissinger was told about Vietnam ought to be called Ellsberg’s Law. First comes exhilaration at having secret information. Second comes the feeling of being a fool for not knowing it all along. Third comes the final feeling: the idea that every expert is a fool because he doesn’t know what you know. That stage is when you start cutting yourself off from the reality-based community.
Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith tell how this former Marine and game theorist became dangerous when he copied the papers and distributed them. Ellsberg tried to do it the honest way, leaking them to the Senate. With the exception of Alaska’s Mike Gravel, the solons showed little desire to hold the hot potato. The spud in question passed to The New York Times.
When the papers were published, Ellsberg became a fugitive, persecuted by a vengeful president of the United States. Richard Nixon eventually sealed his own downfall when he unleashed a new force of shadow men—the leak-hunting “plumbers”; a loyal yet clumsy team that went from burglarizing Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to the Watergate Hotel. Erlich and Goldsmith pre-empt the bloggers who will be repeating the Nixonian line that Ellsberg was giving “aid and comfort to the enemy.” This enemy already knew, as Ellsberg put it, “that we weren’t backing the wrong side, we were the wrong side.”
The documentary does not traffic in ’60s lore, nor is it overly nostalgic for the smell of vintage teargas. Without it being quite on his sleeve, Ellsberg’s heart is on display. We see him as an amateur magician entertaining kids. We learn of the trauma of an early accident that gave him a lifelong feeling that “father” (or the government) didn’t always know best. And one is touched by the long if interrupted courtship between Ellsberg and his wife (and fellow peace activist Patricia). She might have been left behind if Ellsberg had been sentenced to even some the 115 years the government tried to give him. Nixon’s Plan A failed: “Let’s convict the son of a bitch in the press.”
As per Errol Morris, the new style of documentary uses all the classic movie techniques: the stock footage, the tight close-up, the giant clock face ticking away; if they’re clichés, at least they’re attractive ones. The real cliché would have been how a fictional feature film would handle this story, ending it on a note of triumph. The full story is sadder. The public knew the war was a lie but brought Nixon back with a landslide for four more years. (And then they repeated a similar folly in ’04.) This is immaterial to the rare bravery and steadfastness of Ellsberg, as well as the other interviewees: the late Howard Zinn, Ben Bagdikian and various personnel from The New York Times. This is a story to refresh the memories of the old and inspire the young.