The Most Dangerous Man in America

Posted April 14, 2010

This 92-minute documentary retells the story of how a brilliant policy analyst learned that the war he supported and justified was a fraud. Even those who remember the publishing of the Pentagon Papers may not realize how deeply embedded Daniel Ellsberg was in the story itself. He was on duty at the Pentagon August 4, 1964 when calls came in that a U.S. ship had been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin – and he was there when a subsequent message arrived indicating that such an attack didn’t happen. He saw how this non-incident became President Johnson’s legal justification for deploying troops against North Vietnam.

Ellsberg was also the researcher who wrote up a single case of torture to provide the evidence Johnson used to launch a bombing campaign against North Vietnam.

One dramatic cinematic moment occurs when Ellsberg, in Vietnam, examines the map of the Vietnamese army’s night patrols. He decides to join one and only at that point is he told that the army doesn’t go out on night patrols-this is all an elaborate ruse. In fact it’s the North Vietnamese who travel the roads at night!

The story of Ellsburg’s transformation from cog in the wheel to antiwar activist seemed slow. First he tries to find ways to minimize the bombing that’s being carried out. But then he realizes it’s not just a case of being on the wrong side, but being the wrong side. He tells Tony Russo, a colleague at the RAND Corporation that he has a copy of a study that traces the widening war; Russo encourages him to show it to others. Then the movie turns into high gear: How does one get the message of a 7,000-page study out? He tries to interest Senators William Fulbright and George McGovern but they aren’t interested, and so he decides to go to the NEW YORK TIMES.

For me, the interviews with the NYT’s staff revealed a sharp difference between then and now. I find it hard to believe the TIMES, the WASHINGTON POST and another 15 newspapers would actually be so gutsy as to print such a document today.

The photographs and films from the period are the heart of the movie. While the “reenactments” seem forced, the device of framing Ellsberg’s story with quotes from President Nixon’s tapes is delicious! Ellsberg narrates “The Most Dangerous Man in America,” and some of his snippet interviews let the viewer understand how he was threading himself through the labyrinth of deceit.

What has come to be known as the Pentagon Papers provided overwhelming evidence that the war was a hostile occupation. The papers also revealed the cynicism of public officials who knew the war was unwinnable-like McNamara-but said they could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Most of the audience will see the obvious connection between yesterday and today.