The Most Dangerous Man in America


Written by Onjuli Datta
26 Monday 26th July 2010

Daniel Ellsberg began making copies of the Pentagon Papers in the fall of 1969. At the end of a day working as a Vietnam War strategist, he would put the top secret papers in his briefcase and walk out past the security guards. But Ellsberg’s plan wasn’t to send the documents off to Russia or China. His intentions were a lot more destructive than that. His plan was to leak them to the American public. He was going to expose three decades of US governmental corruption to the people they had lied to.
When he was caught, Ellsberg was put on trial for a whole list of charges. If he’d been convicted for all of them, he would have been required to serve 115 years in prison. Those in authority marked him as a public enemy. But the truth is that Ellsberg was on the public’s side. He was witness to an unwinnable war, and part of a government promising victory. It was time to say something.
The film follows a very regular documentary format, with interviews and archive footage making up the bulk of the time, and some animation strewn in between. This makes it even stranger that some of Ellsberg’s stories look like they’ve been ripped straight out of a Hollywood movie: swapping papers in secret at midnight, hiding out in motel rooms under fake names. Except these stories are real, and they worked to shape one of the biggest moments in modern history.
There’s a definitive focus on Ellsberg himself. He narrates the film throughout, and aspects of his personal life are explored. You also see the influences that turned him against the government he worked for; spending time as a soldier in Vietnam, and the liberal views of his wife. The portrayal of Ellsberg as a three dimensional character makes him much more accessible. You like him because you understand him. You want the good guy to win.
It’s clearly rooted in Cold War politics and the Vietnam War. But the message that comes along with it is still relevant today. The parallels between public doubt on Vietnam and today’s doubt about Afghanistan and Iraq are clear. The lies of the government during that period ran deep, and it throws the truthfulness of our own governments into question. It’s almost uncomfortable to watch, noticing how obvious the similarities are.
Ellsberg’s example of standing up to corruption is an inspiring one, and it has a new weight with the backdrop of twenty-first century politics behind it. The focal lesson about sticking up for the truth is evident enough; when Ellsberg is asked by a reporter if he is concerned about going to prison, he replies, “Wouldn’t you go to prison to end this war?” He’s a poster-boy for the America’s radical changes through the sixties and seventies, and his actions are representative of all that they stood for.
The Most Dangerous Man in America is out now from Dogwoof.

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