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The Most Dangerous Man in America fascinating history with a provocative story
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The Most Dangerous Man in America fascinating history with a provocative story

by Scott Rice - SGN Contributing Writer

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
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Your government lies to you. It doesn't matter if the president is Republican or Democrat; your government lies to you. Each one of us has to decide daily how much lying from our government is tolerable. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg reached his limit. He took action.

Ellsberg was working as a high-level Pentagon official and Vietnam War strategist when he decided the war was based on decades of lies. He proceeded to leak 7,000 pages of top-secret documents to The New York Times - pages the government was none too keen for us to see.

Ellsberg's unprecedented action shook up Washington and turned him into the darling of the anti-war movement. Ellsberg became something he had never been in all his years as a top-level government wonk: a celebrity. The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers is a conventional documentary that tells Ellsberg's unconventional story. It's so conventional that it could be used to teach documentary filmmaking. These filmmakers know how to get out of the way of a good tale.

And it is a good tale. There is high-level intrigue and clandestine activities. There is a love affair for the ages, and it's all set against the backdrop of an unjust war. The story begs to be made into a feature film starring Tobey Maguire and Michelle Williams if for no other reason than John Williams could write one hell of an over-the-top score.

The biggest question I came away with - and there are many questions I came away with - concerns Ellsberg himself. Who is this guy?

He's not against war. In fact, he was intimately involved with the planning and conduct of the Vietnam War from 1959 on after becoming a strategic analyst at the RAND Corporation and consultant to the Defense Department and the White House while working on his Ph.D. in economics at Harvard. He even returned to Vietnam in the late '60s, serving as a "civilian" with the State Department.

Ellsberg joined the Defense Department in 1964 as Special Assistant to Assistant Secretary of Defense (International Security Affairs) John McNaughton, working on the escalation of the war in Vietnam. It seems Ellsberg knew a lot about the lies because he had a pivotal role in their creation.

Ellsberg was an artist. As a teenager, he was on track to be a concert pianist until the untimely death of his mother, after which he stopped playing altogether (Ellsberg considers the same incident formative in his decision to spill the beans in 1971).

He's a romantic. After a failed first marriage, Ellsberg found the love of his life in Patricia. After dating briefly, they are reunited years later amid the chaos of the anti-war movement. Patricia was a lefty and a staunch supporter of the anti-war movement, leading me to believe Ellsberg might have done it for love.

He also liked the camera turned on him. I get the feeling he relishes the spotlight and seeks it out. My suspicions about his appetite for celebrity force me to consider just how altruistic his motivations were.

Ellsberg's story also prompts comparisons to contemporary politics. In the late '60s, a Democratic president at war was replaced by a Republican who promised to "end the war and win the peace." Forty years later, a Republican president at war was replaced by a Democrat who promised, "I will end this war; I will immediately begin to remove our troops from Iraq."

Not much changed after the election - not in 1968 and not in 2008.

Another interesting aspect of this story is how the free press stood up to government bullying and won. The New York Times was effectively censored when Nixon obtained a federal court injunction forcing the Times to cease publication. Other papers jumped into the breach and began printing excerpts from the leaked papers. The Supreme Court finally ruled in favor of The New York Times, but the ruling was 6-3 and vigorously debated afterward.

The entire episode speaks to the importance of a free press in a democracy. With print journalism under pressure to find a new economic model in this digital age, lessons like these become vital for a new generation to understand.

And as disconcerting as the search for a new economic model for print journalism is, perhaps more troubling is the consolidation of media ownership. When fewer people control information and less reporting takes place locally, we all lose.

This Oscar-nominated film lost to The Cove for best feature-length documentary this year, and I can agree with that outcome. That's not to say, however, that The Most Dangerous Man in America isn't a fascinating film. As you can see from this review, it made my brain hurt. The story is amazing and its cultural moment will speak for centuries to come. You should definitely see The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.

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