The press notes for The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers don't call it a documentary; they call it a "political thriller," and the description is apt. The film may engage in the most familiar trappings of doc filmmaking--sometimes to its own detriment--but the story it tells is so engaging and engrossing that we're swept right up in it. It's a film about a moment in history--a specific moment, right before the entire house of cards that was the Nixon administration came tumbling down--but it is also an intimate, candid portrait of a man who had a crisis of conscience, and decided to act on it.
The film, directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, runs on two tracks: as a personal biography of Ellsberg and a historical snapshot of what he did. The second part is easy, and part of the record: a former Pentagon insider, Ellsberg was a man transformed by the early 1970s. The once-hawk was now a dove, furious about the lies that the American government (particularly, five of its Presidents) had told the people about the circumstances leading up to our involvement in Vietnam. When his attempts to bring Congressional attention to a top-secret Pentagon study highlighting those lies failed, Ellsberg leaked the so-called "Pentagon Papers" to the New York Times, setting up a chain of events that pitted the Nixon administration against the free press, influenced public perception of the floundering Vietnam conflict, and led directly to the Watergate scandal that toppled the Nixon presidency.
The details of that story, the whens and hows and whos, are riveting viewing. But you can find all of that in books and other documentaries. The juice here is Ellsberg's personal journey from one of the architects of the war to one of its staunchest enemies. Careful attention is paid to the details of his psychological make-up, to the doubts that were percolating in the late 1960s, to the concerns and fears that finally led him to conclude that "it wasn't that we were on the wrong side. We were the wrong side."
Those are Ellsberg's own words; he both narrates the film and serves as its primary interview subject, a splitting of focus that requires a little getting used to. But that conceit does work, particularly when it leads to scenes like his powerful description of the moment when his life "split in two."
Some of the picture's other devices don't play quite as well. The use of reenactments should always serve as a last-ditch, Hail Mary option for any documentary filmmaker who isn't Errol Morris; those scenes, and the cheeseball music and graphics of the opening sequence, give the film the unfortunate feel of a History Channel special (nothing against History Channel specials--I just don't want to pay good money to buy one on DVD). Some of the other, more inventive solutions to presenting scenes at which cameras weren't present (like the occasional use of simple animation) are more successful.
There are other amateurish moments, but most are forgivable, particularly as the narrative tightens and picks up speed in the last 30 minutes. Those Nixon tapes continue to stun (was there ever a grown man who used profanity more awkwardly?), and Ehrlich and Goldsmith do a first-rate job of conveying the real risks taken by both the Times and Ellsberg himself (he faced the possibility of 115 years in prison).
The anamorphic widescreen image is clean and solid. As with any historical documentary, the filmmakers are often at the mercy of poorly-preserved archival materials. But most of them look pretty good, and the new interviews and reenactments are decent, though skin tones are a bit washed out and compression artifacts are noticeable in the backgrounds of the interviews.
The 5.1 surround track is pitched a little low (I had to crank my receiver up several decibels higher than usual), but it's a well-modulated mix, nicely combining sound effects, Ellsberg's narration, and Blake Leyh's score.
A 2.0 stereo option is also available.
The special features begin, strangely enough, with a "Woody Harrelson Interview" (4:13), a kind of extended trailer in which the actor and activist discusses his admiration for Ellsberg and for the film. I'm glad he likes the movie and all, but the whole thing is rather odd. Next is the "Naomi Wolf Interview" (4:10), in which the author of the book upon which the film is based discusses the themes of the story and draws some compelling modern-day (and historical) comparisons. "The Nixon Tapes" features thirteen audio clips of the former President and his inner circle discussing Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. This is the crown jewel of the bonus features--these lengthy excerpts provide valuable background and a fuller picture of exactly what Ellsberg was up against. "Daniel Ellsberg Today" is merely a text page plugging Ellsberg's website; Filmmaker Biographies and a Trailer Gallery of additional First Run releases close out the extras.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers is guilty of occasional missteps, but nonetheless, it is still a riveting, exciting documentary film.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.