Some people earn the status of heroes by performing acts of bravery on the battle field, taking on charity work in desperate and impoverished places, or perhaps even dedicating their lives to campaigning against Miley Cyrus. Others earn it through much more prosaic processes, like photocopying documents and making telephone calls.
The latter applies to the story of Daniel Ellsberg, which is captured in The Most Dangerous Man in America – a gripping and immensely detailed insider’s account of a top US policy analyst who took a bold moral stance against the Vietnam War. Prosaic processes they may be, but it’s difficult to imagine anybody arguing after watching this film that Ellsberg isn’t deserving of his status as a revered whistle blower and celebrated high profile anti-war activist.
Ellsberg’s war was one of his own making; one which would ultimately be won or lost depending on how many people accessed his information and what they did with it. Ellsberg’s epic battle would eventually put an end to another, far larger war – starts with a “V” and ends with a “nam” – and inadvertently bring about the downfall of Richard Nixon. Not a half bad achievement. Those even remotely interested in the subject should find their gobs appropriately smacked: this film comes on like gangbusters, arresting from literally the first frame.
Ellsberg is what documentarians call great talent: an articulate, passionate and convincing speaker. And boy, he has a story to tell. The film squashes his tale – at least the most compelling bits – into a dense 94 minutes.
After reading a report that discredited the justification for escalating the war in Vietnam, Ellsberg sought first-hand information and flew to Vietnam personally to lead a patrol, which he curiously describes as the most satisfying time in his professional life. He returned to the U.S. convinced that the war was hopeless and that an inaccurate portrait of it was being propagated by American politics and military . He leaked top secret documents to The New York Times, and the snowball effect was incredible, leading Nixon to describe him as – ta da – the most dangerous man in America.
Ellsberg is the film’s narrator, therefore analysis of him as a person is limited to the words of other interviewees. The film isn’t so much about him personally but rather an account of the fascinating position he entrenched himself in.
The Most Dangerous Man in America maintains the archetypal format for insider-style documentaries: lots of talking heads interspersed with archival footage and gritty re-enactments. Regardless, it’s fascinating viewing – an edgy, powerful, uncompromising documentary that summons great interest and urgency despite seemingly not straying very far from the armchair.
The Most Dangerous Man in America is currently screening at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova and will play at the Sydney International Film Festival in June.