Editor's Note: The Most Dangerous Man in America is nominated for an 2011 ABCNews VideoSource Award for best use of footage, and as part of the POV series for a Limited Series Award. What follows is an article from the Spring 2010 issue of Documentary when the film was released theatrically.
By the spring of 1971, the United States was six years into a grisly ground war in Vietnam. The American public was fed up. Little did they know that they had an ally in none other than a key architect of the war.
Sitting in his office at the powerful RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California, a high-level Department of Defense war strategist was poring over a top secret study summarizing 20 years of covert US maneuvers in Vietnam. Slowly, the analyst realized that everything he--and the American public--knew about the war was based on lies. Reaching a boiling point ten years in the making, he made a life-altering decision to leak the study to The New York Times. In the dark of night, he started copying all 7,000 pages...and prepared for jail.
The "Pentagon Papers" scandal was off and running. By June, TV anchors were reporting a shocking new statistic every day. President Richard Nixon, still embroiled in Vietnam, went ballistic and determined to crush the man that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger deemed "the most dangerous man in America." By the time the dust settled, this one-man act of civil disobedience had resulted in a landmark Supreme Court free speech ruling, Nixon's downfall and the beginning of the end of the Vietnam War.
The unlikely man behind it all is Daniel Ellsberg, the subject of The Most Dangerous Man in America. His story might seem an obvious subject for a documentary, but can you make a compelling movie when your hero is a soft-spoken expert in decision theory, whose most dramatic act of espionage was making copies?
Directors/producers Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith seem to think so. The film won a Special Jury Prize at the International Documentary FilmFestival Amsterdam (IDFA), a Freedom of Expression Award from the National Board of Review, audience awards at the Mill Valley and Palm Springs Film Festivals and an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature
Ehrlich and Goldsmith tell Ellsberg's story through interviews with key players, archival footage and artsy re-enactments woven together by cool, dangerous music provided by The Wire composer Blake Leyh. Ellsberg himself narrates with excerpts from his book Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. When one listens to him read his own beautifully turned phrases in a comforting, yet authoritative voice, it's hard to imagine anyone else bringing the same intensity and emotional clarity to the story.
But the idea to use Ellsberg as the narrator actually sparked a major creative debate between the film's directors at the outset of their collaboration, a debate that lasted well into the final cuts of the film, yet ultimately teased out the film's true narrative.
"We saw the film really differently from the beginning," says Ehrlich. She and Goldsmith first met at the Zaentz Media Center in Berkeley, where they both had an office. When they discovered they were each developing a project on Ellsberg, they decided to collaborate, but soon found they had very different ideas about how to tell the story. Ehrlich had recently directed a documentary about World War II protesters, The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It. "I saw the film as being more personal and more about a spiritual transformation," she explains. Goldsmith came to the project after making Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press, a documentary about a muckraking journalist and his ideas and ideals about his profession. Says Goldsmith, "My concern was: Are we going to lose credibility? Are we going to lose not so much objectivity, but believability?"
While Goldsmith, as lead editor, worked on cuts using an omniscient narrator and archival footage, Ehrlich and assistant editor Lawrence Lerew made alternate cuts using Ellsberg as the narrator, and even using re-creations. "We were kind of cutting two different films for a while," says Ehrlich.
But both Ehrlich and Goldsmith describe this creative tug of war as essential to their discovery of the film's ultimate through line: Not a political thriller about the Pentagon Papers leak, but a personal account of what events led a privileged military strategist to become a peace activist. "So much of the story is about struggling with decisions," explains Goldsmith, who ultimately found the objectivity he was looking for in the stories of how each of the key subjects in the film struggled with their roles in the leak. "So much of Dan's story--certainly in the first part of the film--was about that. And so much of the other people's stories, like the journalists and the lawyers and the Nixon Administration guys, was: What do I do? Do I do the right thing?"
Ehrlich and Goldsmith continued to welcome outside ideas throughout their process, and share credit for the film's success with contributions from cinematographers Vicente Franco and Dan Krauss, sound designer Jim LeBrecht of Berkeley Sound Artists, and Michael Chandler, the Oscar-nominated editor of Amadeus, who helped sculpt the final cut.
The filmmakers also struggled with how to use the extensive archival material they found, which added up to hundreds of hours. "That was the good news and the bad news," says Goldsmith who, along with Ehrlich, spent over a year just viewing and logging the material. The Nixon tapes, with no centralized source or transcriptions, were the biggest challenge. But they caught a break with the news footage--thanks to Nixon. "It was somebody's job, we learned, in the Nixon White House to record the news every night," Goldsmith explains. He and Ehrlich found Nixon's news tapes at the National Archives, and an attorney verified that all their selections for the film fell under fair use.
Ehrlich and Goldsmith made artful use of archival footage from the Vietnam War, selecting only those shots that would highlight Ellsberg's journey from war architect to war protestor. For scenes of a trip Ellsberg took to Vietnam, they combined stills of him in Vietnam with carefully culled first-person moments of archival footage to create an intimate view of the devastation in Vietnam. Says Goldsmith, "I think that's a credit to the editorial team-having the stills move and integrating it with actual footage so it feels to the viewer like you're seeing Daniel in action."
Ellsberg had no say in the film's final cut, but actively supports the film as part of his ongoing effort to challenge modern-day Americans to question US military activity. And his story does seem to resonate with a new generation. During the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January, Ehrlich screened the film for a thousand high school students. "That was my favorite screening ever, I think," Ehrlich enthuses. "A hundred hands went up with questions: What can I do to change the country? What can I do to make our government more transparent and be a better citizen?" Notes Goldsmith, "They get that this is not a film about the past. This is a film about the present. They get that instantly."
The Most Dangerous Man in America is currently in limited theatrical release through First Run Features and airs on PBS' POV this fall. To find out how to take part in a community screening event, visit www.mostdangerousman.org, the film's Facebook fan page, or follow Ellsberg on Twitter: @DanielEllsberg.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers will be screening as part of DocuDays LA on Friday, March at 7:00 p.m. at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills and DocuDays NY on Saturday, March 6 at 2:45 p.m. at the Paley Center for Media.
Elizabeth Blozan is freelance writer and director of the documentary Rebel Beat: The Story of LA Rockabilly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.