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Film Review

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

Filmmakers Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith have produced a compelling, powerful and especially timely documentary about Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers, and American government. Few people, short of our Presidents, have altered the course of 20th century American history as much as Daniel Ellsberg. The ulitmate insider, Ellsberg was a bright Harvard grad (1962), then enlisted in the Marines and served as a company commander in Vietnam. He became an analyst for the RAND Corporation, a think tank set up by the Pentagon, and served directly under Robert McNamara (then Secretary of Defense). He was actually on duty at the time of the Tonkin Gulf incident (Aug, 1964), an alleged attack on two US destroyers by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. According to the film, the squadron commander concluded that no such attack occurred, and that the radar operators were seeing phantom images. Nevertheless, President Lyndon Johnson used the attack as a pretext for declaring war on NVN, even though it was questionable, even then, whether there had actually been an attack. Thus began America's Vietnam War, which ended eleven years later in 1975 when North Vietnamese tanks rolled through the Presidential Palace gates in Saigon. The cost was staggering: 58,000 Americans, at least 2 million Vietnamese (North and South) dead, at least 300,000 American wounded, enormous destruction of Vietnamese towns and society, and forced at least 4 million Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians from their homes. It was clearly the worst foreign policy mistake made by the US in the 20th century, to say nothing of the moral implications. So The Most Dangerous Man in America seems especially timely, given the strong parallels between that war and our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For those of us born before 1960, this film brings back many memories and connections.

Ellsberg was originally a strong supporter of the decision to intervene in VN, but began to grow disenchanted with the war while working at RAND. He made a fact finding trip to Vietnam, and soon realized that the optimistic accounts of the war's progress were greatly exaggerated, and in many cases, outright lies. McNamara, privately against the war, commissioned (in 1967) a top secret report about the history of our involvement, beginning from the end of WW II, when the French returned to French Indochina after the Japanese surrendered. This report, soon to become called the Pentagon Papers, was 47 volumes, totaling over 7000 pages. Ellsberg was one of the authors, so had an intimate knowledge of and access to the report. It detailed years of lying by our Presidents (especially Johnson, and later, Nixon) and other top officials about our involvement, including the secret bombing of Cambodia and Laos, and was classified as top secret, not because it would have revealed anything unknown to the North Vietnamese, but because the revelations would have severely damaged public support for the war. The draft fueled opposition to the war, and as anti-war demonstrations began to spread on college campuses, Ellsberg met and became impressed with some of the leaders in the anti-war movement. He became convinced that the war was wrong, immoral, and that the American people had been lied to by five Presidents. He decided to leak the Pentagon Papers to the the NY Times, who began to print them, but were initially stopped by an injunction in Federal court. He ultimately gave copies to at least 10 other newspapers, all of whom continued to publish them where the NY Times had been stopped. Henry Kissinger called Ellsberg "the most dangerous man in America", and Nixon ordered a team of agents to break into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office to steal secrets that could be used to smear Ellsberg. It was the beginning of Watergate, crimes that would ultimately lead to Nixon's impeachment, his resignation, and the withdrawal of American support for South Vietnam. Ellsberg and others were arrested, indicted, and faced trial with substantial jail time. But in a landmark First Amendment decision, the court decided that the government could not impose prior restraint, so the complete Pentagon Papers were finally published. Which, as Kissinger and Nixon had feared, greatly strengthened the opposition to the war and helped persuade Congress to end funding for the war. With American troops gone, and no air support, the South Vietnamese Army was unable to resist a major offensive by the North Vietnamese Army. Saigon fell on April 30, 1975, ending nearly 28 years of continuous war in that country. All of this, and more, is detailed in this film.

The film has a great deal of narration by Ellsberg himself, who is still passionate and articulate about his determination to help end the war. There is considerable archival footage of major events and important players, including some of the Nixon tapes: "the son of a bitch won't know what hit him". The editing is tight, the film very taut, as considerable history had to be condensed into only 90 minutes of film. The film makers use re-enactments for some of the events, such as the copying of the papers at night, but the re-enactments seem unnecessary. There are also a few animated sequences which are surprisingly effective, and probably should have been used more, rather than the re-enactments. The archival footage is very powerful, some of it familiar, some not. Talking head interviews are uniformly fascinating, including journalists like Neil Sheehan, Nixon advisors, such as John Dean, Egil Krough (head of the Watergate team), the historian, Howard Zinn (who died last year), and many more. The lead counsel to the NY Times was particularly interesting. But the interviews with Anthony Russo, Ellsberg's friend at RAND, and co-conspirator (who was indicted with Ellsberg), are very insightful. Russo, whose encouragement to Ellsberg were vital, died last year, and the film is dedicated to him. But the key is Ellsberg, and we owe him much for what was a very courageous act. Also, for anyone who doubts the importance of a free and robust press to a democracy, this film should be convincing that freedom isn't free. It requires strong newspapers, willing to take risks.

One of the few short comings of this film was to not explore the arguments presented by those who favored the continuation of the war. Did the US, in fact, betray the South Vietnamese by pulling out? Could their country and government have been stabilized with continued US support? In the opinion of this reviewer, who spent nearly 5 years in Vietnam (1966-1971), the answer seems clearly no, but not everyone agrees. Nevertheless, this is an important film for many reasons, and an outstanding documentary, and should be seen by all Americans, particularly those who question our current wars. Playing at Landmark's Embarcadero Theater now.

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