This political documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, tells how an Ivy-league trained policy analyst for the departments of State and Defense, Daniel Ellsberg, became disillusioned enough with Vietnam war politics and lies that he leaked a 7,000 page classified report to Congress, and finally the press. It had made his moral center shiver. He could no longer suborn or support the war, the politics or political actors.
The first two-thirds of the documentary serve as a maudlin confessional and broad biography for Mr. Ellsberg, until the final act. The first part is the problem: I wanted to hear objective points of view about the varied ways in which Mr. Ellsberg’s work, his attitude, and he himself had imperiled the United States, not his bleeding heart regrets. The first part is self-indulgent and self-pitying. Neither his biography, nor he deftly addressed the perils that his leaking the report posed to U.S. citizens.
If you want to watch a 70-something year-old impromptu activist spill his guts, and “share” in that maudlin experience, then this film might satisfy you. His gradual misgivings, and then disgust with the politics and various the political and defense department actors are woven through the fabric of his biography. That weaving is well executed, but only as piece of catharsis. We must wait until that last act for the danger and intrigue.
His story and that of the leak are interesting, but when PBS hypes the peril that is acts posed as the core of the narrative, why put that off until the last act?
The film could have been more potent if it had concentrated less on Mr. Ellsberg, the activist outrage and indignation, and more on the details of the copying and the leak process – his actions were what made him a danger, not his convictions. It would have been satisfying and fascinating to hear and see the effort and stress that went into to reaching out to sympthetic members of Congress, and “The New York Times,” and the 16 other newspapers that became a part of that “conspiracy.” Oh well. Too bad. The film rushed through that portion as though they had to finish it before the film or money ran out.
Frankly after 40-minutes or so of wanting this film to engage me, it flopped…until that final act. I just checked out, waiting for the objective facts and the dangers to be made clear. The latter portion was Mr. Ellsberg’s very own taste of the world of Woodward and Bernstein – that worked.
This documentary is Mr. Ellsberg’s own The Fog of War, in reference to a superior documentary from 2003. Too bad it also pales next The Fog of War about the Vietnam-era defense secretary, Robert S. McNamara. That addressed similarly colossal issues in a forthright way.