April 7, 2010

Danger Really Was His Middle Name

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The story of RAND employee-turned-activist Daniel Ellsberg is a famous one, especially for the Baby Boomer generation. But in new documentary by Judith Elrich (The Good War And Those Who Refused to Fight It) and Rick Goldsmith (Tell the Truth And Run: George Seldes and the American Press), Ellsberg is reintroduced to the public more than 35 years after he first made headlines. 2010 Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Feature The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers is an intimate and engaging look into the life of Ellsberg, and the effect that the Vietnam War and the leaking of the Pentagon Papers had on his life and the lives of those involved. The film splices between archival footage, interviews with Ellsberg and his friends and family, and interviews with politicians and historians, notably the late Howard Zinn. It is half history, half personal retrospective.As Ellsberg explains in the beginning the film, in his youth he never could have imagined that he would come be involved in anything like the Pentagon Papers scandal. A Harvard grad in Economics and an officer in the Marine Corps, Ellsberg joined the RAND Corporation — a think tank designed to supplement research and analysis to the U.S. Armed Forces — as one of its most promising young employees. At RAND, among other work, Ellsberg was assigned a research project the results of which contributed to major escalations in bombing campaigns in North Vietnam under President Johnson. It was not until Ellsberg heard senior officials contradict to the press a report that he had just before delivered about the nonsuccess of the war that he became officially disenchanted. This pivotal moment, coupled with exposure to the raging anti-war movement in Washington, turned Ellsberg completely against the war. Inspired by draft resisters, and supported by friend and former RAND colleague Anthony Russo, Ellsberg decided to leak  top-secret reports to The New York Times.The papers, officially named “United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense,” was a study detailing U.S. involvement in Vietnam from 1945. Released in 1971, the papers revealed the true aims of U.S. in Vietnam, and showed that four administrations had deliberately deceived the American people.Though, much to Ellsberg’s dismay, the release of the Pentagon Papers in The New York Times and other major publications did not immediately end the war, they had far-reaching effects that Mr. Ellsberg himself could have predicted. Ellsberg’s trial led to the famous decision of the New York Times Co. v. United States case and some of the measures taken by Nixon to prevent further leaks would feed into the Watergate burglaries, and ultimately the end of Nixon’s presidency.Unlike a History Channel special, or the previous film The Pentagon Papers, The Most Dangerous Man in America is, as the title promises, more about Ellsberg than just the Pentagon Papers. Though the thudding “ominous” music is at times unnecessary, Elrich and Goldsmith have done a good job making sure that the story of Ellsberg doesn’t get swallowed up in spectacle. The interviews with Ellsberg are stripped and honest, and at times the film veers off into effective personal anecdotes.Instead of a close-up look at the Pentagon Papers affair, or Ellsberg’s life during his mid-30s when he released the papers, Elrich and Goldsmith allow viewers to get a full understanding of him, greater than an exhaustive history lesson, or Ellsberg’s occasional recent guest-spots on television news, give. The viewers are able to see the Vietnam War and the Pentagon Papers leakage for what they really were — not just moments in Ellsberg’s life, but memories that simply cannot be forgotten.Indeed, for Ellsberg, as the film makes clear, the guilt and horror that he felt as a young man about his early involvement in the war is a fact that has affected him into his old age. On a more inspiring note, these same experiences have also turned him into a life-long activist, crusading now against involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. And though the parallels between Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan are drawn quite clearly, they are never forced. Elrich and Goldsmith realized, quite rightly, that Ellsberg’s life story was enough to inspire. Like the quiet, yet firm voice of Ellsberg himself, The Most Dangerous Man in America makes its point but is never too brazen.

Original Author: Hannah Stamler