While watching this superbly crafted, and deeply emotional, film by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, I kept thinking about, and hoping, that there might be a Daniel Ellsberg figure (or several) that will soon blow the lid off the 9/11 "conspiracy," the resultant Iraq invasion, and the Bush Administration's culpability in waging a war based on lies and deception, a grand-scale swindle on the citizens of the United States, not to mention those citizens of a country we've helped to destroy through the auspices of, once again, shoving a misunderstood notion of democracy down an unwitting nation's throat. And killing so many innocent people in the process on both sides of the line. Our invasive actions, waged for no valid reason except "empire," are problematic. But what's even more scandalous is the rhetoric set forth for public consumption by national government and corporate media and the concomitant complicity in the charade--by us all. History will not look kindly.
The surface story of The Most Dangerous Man in America, Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, is of a man who in 1971 transformed himself (again, the immediacy of recent history brought to life through one individual's experience) from a leading Vietnam War strategist, dedicated Cold Warrior, and Washington insider holding many powerful cards, to a private citizen who decides to place himself squarely in the center of a maelstrom that exposed devastating national secrets, acting as the catalyst (with the help of a few brave people including his second wife and soulmate, Patricia Marx, and fellow RAND Corporation colleague, Anthony Russo) that set irrevocable things in motion, including the resignation of a twice-elected US president, Richard Nixon. This series of events also saw profound changes in our understanding of "separation of powers" because of his actions. He was a man who knew how things worked from the inside and this enabled him to grasp and expose the powerful proof he needed to crack things open. But what Ehrlich and Goldsmith can, and do, illustrate since they have Ellsberg himself to narrate and tell his own story, along with a highly articulate Greek chorus of subjects who were involved, is the personal memory of the ideological and spiritual awakening of an individual stumbling through the labyrinths of the deepest parts of himself. The excruciating pain and effort this took, the personal sacrifices that had to be made, is this story's real backbone.
I think the reverberations that resound through the last several decades to the present day give this piece an even more substantive heft than it already has, its object lessons about an asleep-at-the-wheel citizenry and the ramifications of mass lethargy and passivity, dazzlingly clear. The film's artifice is in its presentation of Ellsberg's story, in the mood and tempo of the cat-and-mouse nature of a true crime thriller, setting forth the rapid unraveling of a whole nation's most cherished institutions. Even the dopey, child-like animation that's used to describe the "heist" as it happened, is fitting in its portrayal of the absolute absurdity of a man in his office late at night xeroxing 7000 pages of incriminating evidence, his teenage kids in the room with him helping him get through this Herculean task, one manning the copy machine, the other cutting off the TOP SECRET stamps on the tops and bottoms of every single page with a pair of scissors like a runaway school art project. Now, of course, this could be sent by a push of a button on a computer keyboard.
The research and presentation of archival material is absolutely superb, most especially the recordings of an, obviously, deranged and unhinged Richard Nixon, whose personal vendetta against Ellsberg was his ultimate undoing. Nixon to Attorney General John Mitchell in June of '71, the day after Ellsberg surrendered to federal officials in Boston: "Just because some guy's going to be a martyr, we can't be in a position of allowing the fellow to get away with this kind of wholesale thievery, otherwise it's going to happen all over the government. I just say we've got to keep our eye on the main ball. The main ball is Ellsberg. We've got to get this son-of-a-bitch." It turns out it wasn't really the Watergate Hotel break-in that was the event that broke everything open in terms of exposing the Nixon administration's many crimes, but the discovery that Ellsberg had been recorded on illegal wiretaps for two years. In May of '73, Tony Russo and Daniel Ellsberg's trial was dismissed by the judge because of massive government misconduct and all charges, including theft and conspiracy, against the two men were dropped. Nixon again (to Alexander Haig and HR Haldeman): "Son-of-a-bitchin' thief is made a national hero and is gonna get off on a mistrial. The New York Times gets a Pulitzer Prize for stealing documents. They're trying to get at us with thieves. What in the name of God have we come to?"
With exceedingly well-crafted and intelligent interviews, deft, expertly-paced editing by Michael Chandler, Lawrence Lerew and Goldsmith, and a tightly written script by Lerew, Goldsmith, Ehrlich and Chandler, The Most Dangerous Man in America should be required viewing for every citizen in this nation. The film opens at the Cinema Village in New York this Friday. Check here for opening dates in theaters in other cities.
For DocPointers: the film screens in Helsinki again at the BioRex at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday.