If you can make it through the sluggish, pedantic first half of Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's Oscar-nominated documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in the World: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers provides a useful historical footnote, especially for those too young to have known the turbulent '60s firsthand. As such, Dangerous Man demands to be shown in every high school in America. It's as a theatrical release that the movie falls a little short.
The enigmatic Ellsberg is front and center throughout, even serving as the film's (occasionally) self-serving narrator. Chronicling his journey from Vietnam hawk to Nixon-reviled peacenik, Ellsberg seems like a genuinely decent and thoughtful man. He's just not terribly dynamic. Fortunately, his story is a real corker. An ex-Marine who worked under Secretary Robert McNamara at the Department of Defense, where he fudged documents to help strengthen the war effort, Ellsberg became an almost accidental advocate of the First Amendment. After photocopying 7,000 pages of a top-secret RAND Corporation report detailing the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Ellsberg leaked the "Pentagon Papers" to the press, launching a fusillade of threats from both the F.B.I. and the Nixon White House.
The most fascinating parts of the movie describe how major American newspapers — beginning with The New York Times — helped the antiwar effort by surreptitiously publishing sections of the RAND report, despite Ellsberg's status as Public Enemy No. 1. One of the film's more troubling aspects is the realization that few daily papers today would stick their necks out for even as righteous and just a cause as ending an immoral war.
Since Nixon-bashing never goes out of fashion, the filmmakers' inclusion of some juicily profane Oval Office recordings are as funny as they are eerily evocative of ex-VP Dick Cheney on a tear. And because Vietnam and Watergate ultimately spawned Dubya, Cheney, 9/11, Iraq, WMDs, Halliburton, ad nauseam, perhaps the movie's central message is how history continually repeats itself as people stubbornly refuse to learn from past mistakes/crimes. The fact that there's no Daniel Ellsberg-type whistleblower around today makes our current quagmire that much more depressing.
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