‘Dangerous Man’ enthralls audiences
Movie Review | 4 out of 5 Stars
Published: Monday, February 22, 2010
Updated: Monday, February 22, 2010 06:02
A wartime nation is much less a body of emotional, interested and varied individuals than it is a well−greased and intricate machine. Within this jingoistic device, each human being satisfies a particular role, subjugating personal needs and values for the good of the unit. Yet what happens when one cog sickens of the operation and springs free? Judith Erlich and Rick Goldsmith address this in "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers," a documentary about the government insider who exposed to the public the ugly realities of the Vietnam War.
Originally an enthusiastic minion of the government, Ellsberg worked as a military analyst for the RAND Corporation think tank in California. His charisma and brilliance earned him recognition from his peers and superiors, including Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
Upon a visit to Vietnam, Ellsberg's confidence in the military effort was shattered. When Ellsberg voiced his doubts to McNamara, the latter launched a top−secret investigation into the origins and nature of the conflict.
Upon reading the report, Ellsberg discovered that the gruesome war was founded on false and decidedly ignoble premises. Championing his morals over the lofty government position his silence would have ensured him, Ellsberg painstakingly photocopied the 7,000−page report and leaked its contents to the New York Times.
Erlich and Goldsmith's documentary is a worthy wedge of history in its own right. "Dangerous Man" thoroughly covers the domino effect of Ellsberg's self−sacrificing action, accrediting him with President Richard Nixon's impeachment and the modern relationship between the government and the press. The project's success is made evident through its nomination for a Best Documentary Oscar this year.
Yet the documentary's comprehensive historical analysis is of secondary importance. Erlich and Goldsmith's most praiseworthy accomplishment is in rendering a genuine, tangible portrayal of Ellsberg, the eminent man whose name often gets glazed over in history textbooks. Ellsberg's own narration is of course central to this effect. With his earnest and rational demeanor and a voice that fluctuates between dulcet and dull, he presents himself as anything but an unstable radical.
Occasional non−sequiturs from the weighty subjects of war and justice serve to make Ellsberg even more relatable. The audience warms to him as he performs magic tricks for an eager crowd of children and relaxes to the melodic strain his fingertips pluck from a modest piano.
In one scene, Ellsberg stoically outlines the day his father fell asleep at the wheel, which resulted in an accident that killed Ellsberg's mother and sister. In doing so, he injects a poignant note of pathos into the film while revealing the roots of his personal and political commitment to vigilance.
Thoughtful interviews with his contemporaries also add to Ellsberg's own performance, painting a fuller portrait of his character. His wife, Patricia, lovingly describes his implausible transformation from pro−war patriot to righteous martyr. Egil "Bud" Krogh, who attempted to burglarize the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist at Nixon's request, expresses remorse for his blind faith in the ethical veracity of the government. Krogh wistfully praises Ellsberg for upholding the scruples that the ambitious so readily dismiss.
Though the format of the documentary at times teeters dangerously towards that of a dry historical lecture, genuine, if only partially successful, efforts are made to liven up the story from its commencement. The film opens in an unsettling blackness that is soon pierced by flashes of lurid green and the monotonous whirr of a photocopier. In a monologue that is in equal parts a boast and a confession, the disembodied voice of Ellsberg expounds on the mind−boggling task of illicitly reproducing the seemingly interminable document.
This dramatic opening automatically piques viewers' interests, and their attention is maintained throughout the film with pace−quickening audiovisual gems. Some of these points of interests are glib, like the cartoons used to recreate important events in Ellsberg's storyline. Others, like the footage of Vietnamese families under siege and sound bites from Nixon's infamous Watergate tapes, are appalling and distressing.
Though "The Most Dangerous Man in America" makes a name for itself in the realms of both art and history, its greatest success is in a field considerably more abstract. The film's full strength lies in its reaffirmation of the power and potential of an individual who chooses to take a stand for what is right over hiding in the shadows of government secrecy. Nothing could be more inspirational than a true story of a one−man revolution, and on that premise it is possible that this underappreciated documentary might stand the test of time.