Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Dangerous Man

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

Directed and written by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith
Featuring Daniel Ellsberg, Patricia Ellsberg, Howard Zinn, John Dean, Egil “Bud” Krogh, Hedrick Smith, Max Frankel, Anthony Russo
Opens September 16, 2009
Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street

Patriotism became trendy during the Bush years, when many thought that simply slapping yellow ribbon “Support the Troops” magnets on their SUVs would make them automatically daring and brave as they defended American values while driving around their neighborhoods. Daniel Ellsberg’s story—as chronicled in Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s incisive and absorbing documentary portrait, The Most Dangerous Man in America (opens September 16, 2009, the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street)—puts the lie to such lazy patriotism by recreating another volatile time when some people put their country’s well-being ahead of themselves.

Ellsberg entered the annals of American history in 1971 when he was unmasked as the man behind The Pentagon Papers, top-secret documents about our involvement in Vietnam passed on to the New York Times and other newspapers. Rightly viewed as a hero by many, he’s also been wrongly vilified as a traitor, but Ellsberg is a true patriot who put his life on the line for what he believed was in the best interests of his country.

It took awhile for Ellsberg to become affected by our long slog in Vietnam, but once he did (after he began dating Patricia Marx, a radio host who became his second wife), he realized that he must risk his own freedom to help stop a war he watched become a fiasco.

Ehrlich and Goldsmith have made a standard talking-heads documentary dressed up by canny use of archival material such as photographs, video footage and priceless snippets from the Nixon tapes, particularly when the president laments (in his view) Ellsberg’s treason and the press aiding and abetting it. And we thought that this kind of White House paranoia and name-calling began after September 11!

The filmmakers’ ace in the hole is Ellsberg himself, who narrates the film. Following his mistrial on charges of conspiracy and theft, the charismatic Ellsberg has walked the walk for the past four decades as a dedicated peace activist, having been arrested numerous times while protesting. The filmmakers also interview his wife Patricia, former Rand colleagues and journalists; even Nixon administration honcho John Dean chimes in.

Why so many of today’s documentaries must show re-enactments of pivotal events (i.e., when Ellsberg and his children are nearly busted by L.A. police while copying classified materials) is mystifying; whenever shoehorned in, they threaten to drag the film down to the level of a melodramatic History Channel program.

Overall, however, The Most Dangerous Man in America is a movie that all Americans would do well to see: its hero reminds us of the real definition of patriotism.

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