The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
The New York Times
The Untold Story of a War, and the Story of the Man Who Told It
As "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers" begins, a sonorous voice describes American actions during the Vietnam War. It sounds a bit like that of Peter Coyote, a frequent narrator of documentaries with a liberal bent. Then the voice says "I," and you realize that it's Daniel Ellsberg, narrating his own story.
There's no doubt where "Dangerous" stands when it comes to Mr. Ellsberg, the man who leaked the secret history of the war, known as the Pentagon Papers, to newspapers, including The New York Times. On the spectrum from heroic patriot to craven traitor, this detailed, clearly told and persuasive film, directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, is firmly on the side of heroic. It conscientiously notes the viewpoints of those who believe that Mr. Ellsberg betrayed his country or his former colleagues at the Defense Department, which prepared the report. But when the two sides are represented by the formidably intelligent, reasoned, now grandfatherly tones of Mr. Ellsberg on the one hand, and the taped, heavily bleeped rants of President Richard M. Nixon on the other, it's not much of a contest.
One problem the filmmakers have, in fact, is that the narrative of Mr. Ellsberg's disillusionment and of the subsequent First Amendment battle after he leaked the papers is so familiar, and its lessons regarding government malfeasance so accepted, that it has become an official story in its own right. Ms. Ehrlich and Mr. Goldsmith try to jack up the tension with moody Errol Morris-style shots of telephones, safes and briefcases, but they're just distracting.
Yet there's still sufficient drama in the details to keep you hooked — like Mr. Ellsberg's account of the many nights of surreptitious photocopying required to get the 7,000-page study out into the world, or James Goodale's memories of how, as general counsel of The Times, he pushed the newspaper's management to publish it.
As the documentary progresses, the parallels between the events it describes and subsequent behavior by American administrations during conflicts in Central America and the Middle East are mostly left unspoken. Many viewers, however, will come away with a depressing sense of history repeating itself, and Mr. Ellsberg sounds that note himself, asking why the lessons of Vietnam and Watergate seemed to fade so quickly.
The filmmakers, meanwhile, concentrate on their portrait of Mr. Ellsberg, who emerges as a complex and difficult man whose principles, whether you agree with them or not, can't be denied.
"The Most Dangerous Man in America," Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's cogent docu about Daniel Ellsberg, the high-level Pentagon official and Vietnam War planner who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, crams a wealth of material into 90 minutes without losing clarity or momentum. Fascinating for those who lived through the controversy and those for whom the incidentrings only the faintest of bells, the pic wisely allows obvious parallels between Vietnam and Iraq to hover unspoken. Must-see docu is skedded to open Sept. 16 at Gotham's Film Forum after its Toronto fest bow.
The pic opens with the publication of the Papers and the resultant media storm, FBI manhunt and branding of Ellsberg by Henry Kissinger as "the most dangerous man in America." The story then backtracks to follow the sequence of key events in Ellsberg's life: the deaths of his mother and sister (when his father fell asleep at the wheel); his seminal doctoral thesis on decision theory; his 1954-57 stint in the Marines ("the happiest time of my life"); and finally his position in the Defense Department under Robert McNamara.
Ellsberg was instrumental in compiling reports to justify bombing North Vietnam. The docu dramatizes the glee with which Ellsberg sought and found a Viet Cong atrocity (complete with graphic details) to strengthen the case for a policy that he personallyopposed. Guilt over this deed would color all his subsequent actions.
Some may criticize the filmmakers' strict adherence to Ellsberg as both narrator and star, but the docu focuses on his moral turnaround, which directly impacted history. This unique fusion of personal and social drama allows the pic to avoid the usual canned montage-of-the-times approach. The footage places Ellsberg at the center of both polar factions regarding Vietnam: playing Pentagon war games and marching in peace protests.
Ehrlich and Goldsmith's varied storytelling techniques include interviews with eclectic talking heads, re-enactments of shadowy figures Xeroxing thousands of pages, crude animation of secret transfers of boxes of documents, and tape recorders spinning Nixon's uncensored commentary.
Once Ellsberg resolves to publish the 7,000 page secret Rand history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, detailing the lies of four American presidents who plunged the country ever deeper into what increasingly proved to be an unwinnable war, his action (and its attendant threat of a life behind bars) is mirrored by a succession of newspaper editors who reprinted the documents, despite injunctions and court orders, in an impressive show of First Amendment solidarity.
While a present-day Ellsberg complains that the massive number of bombs dropped on Vietnam, which he repeatedly mentioned in press conferences back then, was never duly reported, Ehrlich and Goldsmith redress that silence with a bombardment of newsreel images of aerial destruction.
Time Out New York
After 38 years and an act of political conscience, Daniel Ellsberg reflects on being The Most Dangerous Man in America.
It's a piece of footage that's so pure, even Oliver Stone knew not to mess with it: The middle-aged man stands amid a forest of microphones. Cameras catch sight of a smiling woman by his side—his wife. Daniel Ellsberg has been underground for days; now turning himself in, he is accused of espionage. "I wonder if there are many people here who wouldn't think that ten years in prison was very cheap, if they could contribute to ending this war," he says. The words are firm.
"I was sure that my children would only be seeing me through heavy glass," Ellsberg, 78, tells TONY by phone from his home in Kensington, California, just outside of Berkeley. "I knew they would hear a lot of stories—that their father was a traitor and had gone crazy. But I wanted them to have a clear image that what I was doing was soberly thought-out."
Ellsberg, then a 40-year-old career defense analyst and self-described "Cold War liberal," had made the decision to leak thousands of pages of top-secret military documents to the press. Their publication as the Pentagon Papers, starting in June 1971, was the beginning of the end for the Nixon administration; though they weren't the subject of the Vietnam exposé, all the President's men overreacted with break-ins and illegal spying. The episode is at the heart of the essential new documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.
"The compelling nature of this story was off the charts," offers the film's codirector Rick Goldsmith, 58. "It's essentially about risk: Am I doing enough? Or am I just living out my quiet existence?" Sifting through thousands of feet of archival footage with his collaborator, Judith Ehrlich, Goldsmith shaped a profile that works as both a biographical portrait of a man marked by personal tragedy (his mother and sister died next to him in a car crash) and a study in belated conscience.
"It took us a while to get him onboard," recalls Ehrlich, 61, who eventually solicited Ellsberg and his wife, Patricia, via some old-fashioned Bay Area networking. "Errol Morris was seriously thinking about making Ellsberg his first narrative feature too," she adds. "I don't know if that's public knowledge. But Errol ultimately gave us his blessing—and a 500-page interview."
The leaker's eventful life, with its mix of romantic self-sacrifice and momentous impact, is still discussed in Hollywood as a project for some future heir to Warren Beatty's handsome activism. (An earnest 2003 TV version staring James Spader fumbled.) Contributing to the gravity of this documentary, though, is the voice of another whistle-blower. "There's no question in my mind—I remember it vividly—that after the Pentagon Papers, everything in the White House changed," says former Nixon counsel John Dean, 70, calling TONY from Beverly Hills. "That's when the dark period starts."
Dean, who famously warned his boss of a "cancer on the presidency," remembers an unruffled Nixon on the day Ellsberg's revelations went public. "Honestly, he seemed more interested in the coverage of his daughter's wedding than this study in the other corner of the front page," he says. "It wasn't until Henry [Kissinger] came into the office screaming that the president started getting worried. Somehow Henry pushed Nixon's manhood button. And when he did, all Nixon could do was show how tough he could be on Ellsberg." (Kissinger unwittingly lends the doc its title.)
Ask the most dangerous man about the domino effect he had on the administration and he'll modestly deflect the conversation forward. "We need a new Pentagon Papers—tomorrow isn't soon enough," Ellsberg insists, "because it's almost certainly worse over there than they're telling us. I see Barack Obama proceeding in ways that are either wrongheaded or inadequate, and that won't change without public pressure." Dean, a strong critic of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, concurs. "The lessons of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers have been totally lost," he contends. "The Bush-Cheney people have virtually erased them from institutional memory—it's baffling. And if I can do anything to bring that memory back, I think I should do it."
Ellsberg eagerly counts off current abuses of power, from CIA torture sites to surveillance ops. Clearly for him, the fight is far from over. "I was a nuclear-war planner," he explains, "so the idea of disaster striking is not just a hypothetical possibility." He pauses and laughs. "People ask me why I'm still at it, and I say, 'Well, they're still at it, too.'"
The Hollywood Reporter
After seeing Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's earnest, smart documentary about Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers controversy, viewers not old enough when it unfolded might wonder why the story has played such a minor role in popular histories of the era. This informative account deserves more than the very limited theatrical release it's likely to get.
Ellsberg's story (which he narrates large parts of) is similar to that of many intellectuals recruited into Washington's cadre of wunderkinds only to find themselves with the blood of Vietnam all over their hands. Brilliant and competitive, Ellsberg was a top policy analyst in the military-industrial complex more interested in game theory and puzzle-solving than waging war. Symbolically, the Gulf of Tonkin incident erupted on his very first day at the Pentagon under Robert McNamara.
From then on, Ellsberg—a lean and professorial type with a David Strathairn gravity to him—was propelled deeper and deeper into planning of the war he later came to despise. A true-blue anti-communist and former Marine, Ellsberg was no desk wonk, but headed into the South Vietnamese deltas and jungles to dig up data firsthand, even if it meant going into actual combat. Ellsberg ultimately learned enough about the war—particularly how badly it was going and how inhumanely it was being fought—that he couldn't ignore his doubts any longer.
Though their visuals tend toward hokey reenactments and no-frills talking-head dialogue, the filmmakers do an astounding job relating how Ellsberg brought the Pentagon Papers (which laid out in plain language how the Pentagon and White House had been lying through their teeth to the public about the war) to light. From smuggling the thousands of top-secret documents out of the Rand Corporation, to the breathtaking race to publish them in more newspapers than the government could get injunctions against (vitriolic audiotapes reveal a vicious Nixon raging in full splutter, "We've got to get this son of a bitch!"), it's a thrilling journalistic drama, easily the equal of Deep Throat.
If nothing else, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (the title comes from Henry Kissinger) strongly makes the point that without Ellsberg's breach in the dam, Nixon might never have been paranoid enough to get his team of plumbers to raid Ellsberg's doctor's office, which laid the groundwork for their later break-ins at the Watergate.
Although visually a minimally budgeted public television-style documentary (if only Errol Morris had wanted to tell Ellsberg's story as a follow-up to The Fog of War), The Most Dangerous Man offers a brisk and eye-opening approach to recent history.
Los Angeles Times
In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, a former Marine, Pentagon employee and military analyst, performed one of the most daring whistle-blowing acts of the century: Leaking ex-employer Rand Corp.'s copies of the top-secret Pentagon Papers to the New York Times (and subsequently other major dailies) in order to expose the truth -- or, more specifically, the lies -- behind America's longtime involvement in the Vietnam conflict. The gripping story of how hawk-turned-dove Ellsberg's explosive actions circuitously led to the impeachment of Richard Nixon and, in turn, an end to the Vietnam War is comprehensively detailed in Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's evocative documentary "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers."
Fortunately, the staunchly committed and controversial Ellsberg, now 78, is still around to tell his history-making tale, and he lends the film gravitas as both its persuasive narrator and primary talking head. Cogent interviews with journalists, lawyers, historians and other surviving Pentagon Papers players augment Ellsberg's chronicle, with a wide array of archival photos and news footage providing vital visual support. Parallels to more recent U.S. military imbroglios, though judiciously low-key here, are eerily evident.
But it is the audio from the infamous Nixon tapes, in which the then-president rails in monstrous fashion against Ellsberg, that supplies the film's most chilling -- and perversely entertaining -- moments.
New York Post
Vietnam-era Misdeeds Back in Spotlight
THE most exciting thriller I've seen in a while contains nary a car chase and doesn't feature Will Smith.
In fact, the film is a documentary: "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers," which is as powerful as anything Hollywood can throw at us.
Directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, the film tells how Ellsberg risked spending the rest of his life in prison to tell the American people how a mountain of lies by five presidents, from Truman to Nixon, fueled the US war in Vietnam.
But that wasn't all. Ellsberg, more indirectly, helped bring down Nixon, who resigned as liar-in-chief in 1974 as he faced possible impeachment over the Watergate break-in at Democratic National Headquaters and its subsequent coverup.
Daniel Ellsberg celebrates his acquittal.
The Pentagon Papers was the name given to a top-secret study by the RAND Corp., which detailed decades of misleading statements about Vietnam from the White House.
Ellsberg smuggled the papers out of RAND, the military think tank where he worked. The story is largely narrated by Ellsberg, now in his late 70s, with an assist from his wife, Patricia.
In addition, the directors employ talking heads, old newsreel footage, re-creations, quotes from audio tapes Nixon made of himself in the Oval Office — even animation.
We know what is going to happen: The Supreme Court will rule that the New York Times, the Washington Post and other newspapers can print the Pentagon Papers; Ellsberg will be indicted for violating the Espionage Act, and he will be cleared.
Still, the facts unroll with the same urgency as if they were brand-new.
It was Henry Kissinger who called Ellsberg "the most dangerous man in America." (Nixon, never one to mince words, said he was "a son of a bitch.") Others would call Ellsberg a national hero.
New York Magazine
Two films depict wildly disparate whistle-blowers: Steven Soderbergh's true-ish comedy The Informant! and Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. What a contrast: a limp burlesque and a straight-ahead, enthralling story of moral courage....
The Most Dangerous Man in America also centers on an insider who attempted, in vain, to reconcile his career and his conscience. But this story changed the world. I'm ashamed to admit I knew so little about Ellsberg, a marine who studied decision-making under duress, fought the Cold War fight against Stalinist dictatorships, then traveled from Santa Monica, California, and the Rand Corporation to the Mekong Delta. There he saw firsthand that the Vietnam War was unwinnable, made the case to his superiors, and watched in shock as they lied their asses off. The more he studied the history of Southeast Asia, the more he saw that all the presidents lied: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and finally Nixon, who campaigned on a platform of stopping the war while in private vowing to hammer "this shit-ass little country." Narrated by Ellsberg, the movie offers one revelatory interview after another mixed with reenactments (animated) that have fun with the caper-movie aspect and build real suspense. So many people risked their livelihoods to put the 7,000-page Pentagon Papers out there—although its most tangible result was the creation of Nixon's plumbers unit. We have not celebrated Daniel Ellsberg enough. Let's begin.
Full Review:Bill Berkowitz: Interview with Co-Director 'The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers'
BUZZFLASH GUEST COMMENTARY
by Bill Berkowitz
Force-feeding Democracy: 'The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers,' to premiere at Toronto Film Festival
A BuzzFlash exclusive online interview with Rick Goldsmith, the co-director of a 'story about American government, secrecy, lies and power.'
" … this is a self-governing country. We are the government. And in terms of institutions, the Constitution provides for separation for powers, for Congress, for the courts, informally for the press, protected by the First Amendment. . . . I think we cannot let the officials of the Executive Branch determine for us what it is that the public needs to know about how well and how they are discharging their functions. . . ." – Daniel Ellsberg interviewed by Walter Cronkite, while underground after releasing the "Pentagon Papers."
A little over 38 years ago, when he released the "Pentagon Papers" to The New York Times and other newspapers, it set off one of the 20th century's most important battles over government secrecy and freedom of the press. The nation was stunned by the revelations, and he became one of the most reviled and admired figures in America. The Nixon Administration was apoplectic; it targeted him through warrant-less eavesdropping and ransacked his psychoanalyst's office to gain access to his medical records. An exhausted anti-war movement was buoyed by his courage and audacity. And yet, despite the uproar, the Vietnam War lasted several more years.
He was arrested and tried for espionage and conspiracy, and faced life imprisonment. The charges were later dropped due to the Nixon Administration's misconduct.
In 1969, Daniel Ellsberg, a former Marine Corps officer, was given access to classified documents regarding the conduct of the Vietnam War, in his capacity as a U.S. military analyst employed by the RAND Corporation.
As reported by Stanford Unger in his book "The Papers & The Papers, An Account of the Legal and Political Battle Over the Pentagon Papers" 1972, E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc.), in 1969, Ellsberg and his former RAND Corporation colleague Anthony Russo, secretly photocopied 7,000 pages of what was to become known as the "Pentagon Papers." The "Pentagon Papers," officially titled "United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense," were a top-secret United States Department of Defense history of the United States' political/military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967, commissioned in 1967 by then Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara.
After failing to convince several anti-war Senators to release the papers on the Senate floor, Ellsberg finally leaked the documents to The New York Times correspondent Neil Sheehan.
In mid-June of 1971, after initially publishing the first of nine excerpts and commentaries on the 7,000 page collection, the Times ceased further publication after the Nixon Administration requested, and was granted, a court order. Ellsberg then leaked the documents to The Washington Post and 17 other newspapers. By the end of June, a Supreme Court decision — New York Times Co. v. United States — permitted the Times to resume publication. Understanding that the FBI might assume that he was responsible for the leak, Ellsberg went underground for 16 days. He then turned himself in on June 28. (See a partial transcript of Walter Cronkite's clandestine interview with Ellsberg while he was in hiding.)
A new documentary film, "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers," co-produced and co-directed by Rick Goldsmith and Judith Ehrlich, tells the story of those extraordinary times. The film will be premiering at the Toronto Film Festival on Friday, September 11. It will subsequently be shown in New York City at the Film Forum, in Los Angeles, and at the Vancouver International Film Festival and Mill Valley Film Festival in October.
I recently conducted the first extensive interview with Goldsmith. He is the producer and director of the Academy-Award nominated documentary feature "Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press" and the writer and editor of "Soul of Justice: Thelton Henderson's American Journey" - a film about the pioneering and controversial African-American jurist.
Bill Berkowitz: Why did you and Judith Ehrlich decide to do a film about Daniel Ellsberg? Why now?
Rick Goldsmith: We each came to it independently. I had interviewed Ellsberg for my film on George Seldes (When he was a Harvard student in 1950, Ellsberg had subscribed to Seldes' four-page newsletter.) In 2002, I wrote Ellsberg about the possibility of doing a film on him and the "Pentagon Papers"; sending him a 2-page outline which even then was titled "The Most Dangerous Man in America." He didn't reply and I didn't follow up. A few years later, Judy Ehrlich approached me and suggested doing a film on Dan Ellsberg. We took it from there.
We both had done films about people of conscience who stood up for their beliefs and dared challenge the status quo. Her film "The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It" told a riveting story about conscientious objectors in World War II. By 2004, we were in the middle of an immoral and disastrous war in Iraq started by a President who lied us into the war, and we had a Congress and a public who seemed either uninterested or powerless to stop it. The story of Ellsberg and the "Pentagon Papers" had parallels that were all too apparent. It was a compelling story and we both felt that it might have something to say to audiences today, especially anyone under 50, who wouldn't have personally remembered or even known about the "Pentagon Papers" events at all.
BB: Where does the title "The Most Dangerous Man in America" come from?
RG: Henry Kissinger, who was President Nixon's National Security Advisor, was widely quoted as having said about Ellsberg — shortly after he was identified as having leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times, and thought to have copies of Nixon's own Vietnam war plans — "Daniel Ellsberg is the most dangerous man in America and he has to be stopped at all costs."
BB: The release of the "Pentagon Papers" was, amongst other things, an example of great personal courage; a test of the media's right to publish; and a battle over the public's right to know. How does this relate to today's political climate; secret CIA hit squads, Blackwater assassination teams?
RG: After Ellsberg's release of the "Pentagon Papers," he was tried under the Espionage Act and faced 115 years in prison. The publication of the Papers by The New York Times and other newspapers could have subjected both the papers and their reporters and editors to criminal prosecution as well. So you might say that June of 1971 was a high point in "civil courage" (a phrase Ellsberg likes to use). Ellsberg and these newspapermen ascribed to the notion that the United States is a democracy and can best function if the Congress, the courts, the press, and the public are outspoken and involved in the decisions of our government. And that while Presidents will try to shut them down in times of crisis, they have to fight against the government in order to make their voices heard, to get the truth out, and to make democracy work. But since 1971, there has been a slow and steady decline, not only in Congressional, press, and citizen involvement, but in the notion that we have a right, a responsibility, to challenge the President and his Administration.
During the first Gulf War, in 1991, CNN foreign correspondent Peter Arnett (who has a cameo in our film) was branded "unpatriotic" and even a "traitor" because he had the gall to do a story that put a human face on Iraqis. The notion that because we're at war, it is treason to report on the effects of war or to criticize the President is an insane notion, but it persists more now than ever. Congress and the news media have become more timid, so stories about torture, assassination, and using mercenary enterprises like Blackwater to fight our wars with no accountability are rarely reported and when they are, horrendous abuses are pushed under the rug.
The Bush Administration said "no pictures of body bags" and the news media complied. Reporters were embedded with the troops making it near impossible to report independently and without censorship. When the "Pentagon Papers" were published, the central issue was "national security vs. the public's right to know." Today, the present Administration — and this is no less true with Obama and Afghanistan than it was with Bush and Iraq — holds all the cards, they make all the rules, and the public has an extremely difficult task even getting the facts, the true story.
BB: The story of the Pentagon Papers has been told a number of times. What new things will viewers learn from your film?
RG: If you're young, you'll be entertained by a gripping story about American government, secrecy, lies and power that you couldn't have imagined in your wildest dreams. If you're older, you'll discover that what you thought you remembered about the "Pentagon Papers" and Watergate is not the whole story. You'll get the inside dope from most of the principals of the time — Ellsberg and his "co-conspirator" Tony Russo, Ellsberg's family, journalists, anti-war activists, government insiders, Nixon White House officials, and, through the Nixon White House secret tapes, President Nixon and Henry Kissinger as you've never heard them before. It's a wild and exciting ride.
BB: Over the course of your filmmaking career, you've interviewed some very impressive individuals including the iconic journalist George Seldes, Judge Thelton Henderson, and now Ellsberg. What links these three historic figures? What have you learned about the struggle for truth, peace and social justice?
RG: George Seldes and Dan Ellsberg were men of conscience, who took risks to address the biggest social injustices of their day. In both of the films there is a first-person narrative passage where the main character — Seldes in one film, Ellsberg in the other — reflects on a personal revelation, a turning point, where he comes to the conclusion that war, which he has participated in and championed up until this moment, is in actuality murder, a crime, and a crime that has to be stopped. Their lives are changed forever — they never again "go along to get along." And what unfolds in each film, is a story in which the viewer (at least this is the intention) comes to see that stopping war, stopping injustice, may take both an incredible about-face to your belief system and a enormous personal commitment to do something — not once, but over a lifetime — to battle the massive forces that keep those wars and those injustices happening, time and again, in every generation.
BB: What do you hope the film accomplishes?
RG: I hope that audiences, especially young people who likely aren't familiar with Ellsberg might see the film and begin to look at the world around them in a different way; to question authority, to consider that their President, their boss, their parents, whoever, doesn't have all the answers. That taking risks for important issues can be liberating, uplifting, and can make a difference in the world around them. I think we all face periods of discouragement, maybe even live "lives of quiet desperation" and that it is a common experience to ask the question "why bother?" Maybe this film can help answer that question.
BUZZFLASH GUEST COMMENTARY
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement and a frequent writer for Z Magazine, Religion Dispatches and other online publications. He documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories, and defeats of the American Right from a progressive perspective