A little more than half way through The Most Dangerous Man in America, there is a revelation worthy of its own feature length film: What if a person sacrificed his occupation, family and freedom to get the truth to the American public and nobody seemed to care? This takes up only a few minutes of screen time, but, from where the viewer sits, seeing 162 Tomahawk missiles fall on Libya while two seemingly endless wars go on in Iraq & Afghanistan and Julian Assange rotates headquarters from a charming country home in England to a courtroom in Stockholm to – why the hell not? – a subterranean compound beneath the Denver airport, it is the point most deserving of rumination.
There can be no doubt that much of the acclaim The Most Dangerous Man in America has received since its opening stems from the inescapable parallels of Vietnam and whichever current war you choose. This documentary would have been valuable in 1997, to be sure, but there is no denying the importance of its message at this moment.
While the reviewer is proposing new features stemming from this film, allow him to go one further, if indeed it hasn’t been done. Why not give us two additional hours on the lies behind every war? Better still, how about a film that spends all its time asking just how a nation can turn around in the span of one generation and lose the lessons which so many of us always suspect, but in the case of Daniel Ellsberg’s release of The Pentagon Papers was proven in black and white?
To hear the Nixon tapes, to be reminded of the fact that the Vietnam War was being planned by Eisenhower and Kennedy, if through proxies or by our own military, up until the Gulf of Tonkin “attack” which served as the cover story catalyst for an 11-year disaster that resulted in the loss of over two million lives, untold treasure and a considerable blow to our international reputation, to see the footage from Washington to Saigon, is to beg another question; namely, what in the hell is wrong with us?
After all, the lies leading up to the Iraq War were fairly transparent and in plain view to anyone who cared to look. We needed no Ellsberg… we had UN reports. The rationalizations were the same, though, and they shall surely remain so until the public calls its leaders out on the ruse.
If we are to stretch out ever so slightly to divine that symbolic, poetic meaning of The Most Dangerous Man in America, it is the disheartening cliché that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It is telling that Ellsberg found a strange resistance among anti-war legislators when he attempted to circulate his secret history of the Vietnam War through them. We see Howard Zinn explain this, commenting on the culture of deference and capitulation within the legislative branch. It is difficult to escape the feeling that it goes beyond deference. Is it possible that public debate is simply an act of theater, with the real decisions being made in corridors of power that aren’t available on CSPAN? The more one looks into it, the less outlandish this contention appears.
Things stay the same in the public mind, which never ceases to find a way to ignore revelations like The Pentagon Papers, Wikileaks, the recent piece in Der Spiegel and countless others. Many go beyond the bounds of a normal life in their condemnation of diversions and frivolity. It is hard to imagine how one can stay sane without basketball games, a bit of comedy, etc. Still, disconcerting is too small a word when considering the American public’s ability to answer crimes and horrors with a shrug.
As with all poetic, symbolic imagery, the aforementioned isn’t quite precise. As we learn, 1970’s America isn’t exactly analogous to the America of the 2000’s. For starters, the Horatio to Ellsberg’s Hamlet turns out to be a brave and vibrant press. While we have our share of online resources that go beyond what organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Sun Times, et al. were capable of then or are now, they do little to mitigate the maddening compliance our major media has displayed for the last 30 years. Publication of the Wikileaks cables notwithstanding, it is hard to imagine today’s Times and Post coordinating so effectively under a threat as real as the Nixon Administration offered. Second, we see press freedom held up in a 6-3 Supreme Court vote. If you think that the current Judiciary, which we learn is basically the only coequal branch of government to our Executive, would walk out on that limb against the interests of our politicians and profiteers, it is probably best that you return to diversions and frivolity.
The courage and consequence of Daniel Ellsberg’s actions cannot be questioned. The Most Dangerous Man in America is a tremendous appraisal of the man, his path, his life. As the film posits, it is quite clear that The Pentagon Papers were integral in the downfall of a presidency if not the immediate conclusion of a war. What is unnerving about these findings is that, while presidents come and go, wars seem to live out their own biographies. Whether it is Vietnam from Eisenhower to Nixon – and let us not forget the two gentlemen in-between – or Iraq from Bush to Obama and, lamentably, beyond, the continuity of agenda is equal parts perplexing and maddening. One cannot help but think that altering this reality doesn’t require heroic acts by the Daniel Ellsbergs of the world. It only requires that we listen to them.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
Directed by Judith Ehrlich & Rick Goldsmith
Color and Black & White, 92 minutes, 2009