Skip to main content

3 out of 4 stars


The Most Dangerous Man in America

  • Directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith
  • Starring Daniel Ellsberg
  • Classification: NA

Most of us take bad orders all too well. How rare it is for anyone, working at any level in the public or private sector, to "give priority to conscience over career." Or over a paycheque. But Daniel Ellsberg did just that, and in the highest echelons, engaging in an act of civil disobedience that, during a conflicted time, earned him conflicting labels. To some, he was an unalloyed hero; to others, including Henry Kissinger, he was "the most dangerous man in America." Those who lived through the Vietnam War era, and paid attention, will find this documentary short on revelation but long on poignant reminders. Those who didn't, and haven't studied up, will not only be edified but flat-out impressed. Clearly, so were the Oscar nominators - it's on their short list for best doc of the year.

Efficiently wedding archival footage to contemporary interviews, co-directors Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith take a chronological approach to Ellsberg's journey of courage. The start date is August, 1964, when, after a stint in the Marines and another as a deep thinker at the Rand Corp, he joined the Pentagon. Within days, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was passed, whereby, as history records, the administration concocted a deceitful pretext to enable the president to wage a foreign war. Of course, four decade later, history would repeat itself. In both cases, the lie was cheaply bought and easily sold.

Story continues below advertisement

At that point, Ellsberg was a committed Cold Warrior, hired to feed rationales for "expanding the war" to his insatiable boss, Robert McNamara. His metamorphosis from hawk to dove began with a personal visit to the jungle battlefield, continued through the disastrous Tet offensive in 1968 and culminated with his reading of a top-secret study commissioned to trace the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Yes, the Pentagon Papers, 7,000 pages that documented the fabric of public lies stretching through the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon years.

Says Ellsberg now, his hair gone grey but his manner as elegant as ever: "I realized I wasn't discharging my responsibility by keeping these secrets." Said Richard Nixon then, on those infamous White House tapes, speaking to Kissinger about the bombing of North Vietnam: "You're concerned about the civilians, but I don't give a damn about them." Two men, each showing his true moral colours - see if you can spot the hero.

From there, the snowball starts its roll - Ellsberg leaks the Papers to 17 different journals, the Supreme Court upholds their right to publish, the leaker gets charged under the Espionage Act, Nixon gets re-elected and then gets even with "the son of a bitch," forming the burglarizing "plumber' unit" that would end in Watergate infamy. So the film argues that the seeds of Watergate are traceable directly to Daniel Ellsberg. No doubt, but it's partial truth. Actually, the Pentagon Papers, although widely disseminated in the summer of 1971, went largely unread by an American public who, in the fall of 1972, returned Nixon so resoundingly to office. In the later endgame, Ellsberg was a factor, but only one of many. No, the fascination of Richard Nixon is that he was the leading, and by far the best, architect of his own demise.

The Most Dangerous Man in America opens today in theatres and airs on TV later this year on the PBS program POV.

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.