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

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 21, 2015

As far as the filmmaking goes this is a pretty plain, even perfunctory piece. But sometimes plain is all you need. What’s good is how the collaborators who made this movie pull together all sorts of varied, complicated even contradictory things. There’s Ellsburg himself—probably the key to their getting any funding, as well as the hook for the uninitiated or marginally interested viewer. Next there’s Ellsburg, involved in a very complicated and significant series of events. That bundle of protagonist and plot is where the film’s considerable interest lies, though it could also have been what put off the restive viewer, and also tripped up the teller of the tale. It’s a real accomplishment, then, that this collective has put it all together so clearly and conscientiously.

Daniel Ellsberg is a fascinating character, and a charismatic one. The film runs with that, but it never indulges it; this isn’t I’m Your Man (2005) obsequiousness, or hagiography. (I felt that I’m Your Man was obsequious and hagiographic.) In addition to the marquee, we also get a vivid look at secondary characters and, especially, supplementary events. Without getting too diffuse, they present the roots and the branches of the thing. The result is that most satisfying object: a delimited history that still gives you a very big picture.

In addition to its really important central narrative, The Most Dangerous Man in America gives us two other big things, two big questions to think about. The first is philosophical/ethical. It’s a policy or domestic equivalent to the Auschwitz/Mi-Lai conundrum. It’s also—and this is an entirely different thing from Auschwitz or Mi-Lai—the Vietnam conundrum.

A functionary is duty bound to execute the things that he is employed to execute. Civil servants have obligations, and there is complicated but undeniable honour in fulfilling those obligations. In other words, Robert McNamara is not the same as Lieutenant Calley. But still, there are limits. At what point does appropriate subordination become unethical, or immoral? Ellsberg’s actions were treasonable and heroic both, depending on which very valid perspective you view them from. At least you can see how people might have perceived things either way, back in 1971. Today, not so much. The importance of the Pentagon Papers, after all, was how they revealed that most everyone lied about Vietnam. Not treason then, but heroism. Or maybe just moral necessity. At some point, as Albert Camus so stirringly put it in The Plague, you affirm that 2 + 2 = 4, for all that they may howl to the contrary.

Second big thing: Ellsburg, which is to say this exact and precise sequence of events, is what put Richard Nixon over the edge! How disappointed the whistle-blowers were when, after all of these dire revelations, the American electorate just voted him back in to office. But aren’t comedies and tragedies and histories complicated? Going around, coming around…