Burn After Reading

Oscar-Nominated Documentary Digs Deep to Uncover the Story Behind Daniel Ellsberg's Decision to Release Pentagon Papers

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After a five-year-long career at the Pentagon, Daniel Ellsberg had had enough. One night after work, he brought home several volumes of top secret documents detailing three decades of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Over the next year, Ellsberg photocopied 47 volumes; he even recruited his young children to expedite the illicit activity. These 7,000 pages, eventually released to 17 publications, would soon be known worldwide as the Pentagon Papers.

The episode, re-enacted in the opening of the new Oscar-nominated documentary "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers," has the feel of a heist film. Ominous music portends a crucial moment, a safe's dial clicks open and Ellsberg's eyes glow neon green from the whirring Xerox machine. It's a heavily stylized sequence, but the subject matter is more than deserving of this treatment. After all, the Pentagon Papers led directly to Watergate and the fall of the Nixon presidency.

Berkeley filmmakers Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith began working on the documentary in 2005, two years after the start of the Iraq war. "We wanted to make something that wasn't just a standard PBS history film," Ehrlich says, noting that the story has all the elements of a dramatic film. The filmmakers use a stunning amount of archival footage, from newspaper headlines to interviews and audio recordings. Ehrlich, a UC Berkeley alumna who currently teaches at Berkeley City College, had interns dig through hundreds of hours of President Nixon's tapes; much of the content hadn't been transcribed or listened to before.

The film, like the best documentaries, digs toward the truth while raising a number of troubling questions. To better explore the implications of this stunning chain of events, the filmmakers go back to the beginning, when Ellsberg began his illustrious career in the Marine Corps and the RAND Corporation. As it turns out, Ellsberg was a proud "cold warrior" who believed that the best way to protect democracy was to stop the spread of Communism. This background establishes Ellsberg as an ordinary, patriotic citizen. It also serves as an evocative counterpoint to Henry Kissinger's description of him, post-Pentagon Papers, as "the most dangerous man in America."

Ellsberg, who now lives in the East Bay community of Kensington, is the most prominent figure in "The Most Dangerous Man in America." Though he is now 78 years old, Ellsberg still retains the peerless intellect that gave him the audacity to release the Pentagon Papers. One striking thing, upon seeing the juxtaposition of Ellsberg in archival footage and modern-day interviews, is how young he was. Pair his youthful good looks with his charisma and intelligence, and you can see why he was so effective at pushing the Pentagon Papers into the public sphere.

Also striking is how much time has passed, and how little things have changed. Ehrlich and Goldsmith wisely refrain from making explicit connections to current wars and George W. Bush's presidency. "The parallels are unmistakable," Goldsmith says. "Young people immediately see that this is not a film about the past-this is a film about the present." Goldsmith and Ehrlich were fascinated by the way Americans then and now were deceived into entering wars. They began to reach out to Ellsberg in 2005, so he could shed more light on what was going on now.

The film certainly makes a compelling case about the dangers of having an executive branch with too much power. The biggest character, aside from Ellsberg, is Nixon's voice-even on tape, the president has a terrifying presence. During one excerpt, we hear Nixon seriously considering detonating a few nukes in Vietnam, which he refers to as "this shit-ass little country."

Unlike Kissinger and other members of the administration, Ellsberg questioned his own assumptions. "Dan was always open to re-evaluating what he thought and what he believed in," Goldsmith says. "He wasn't locked in to his preconceptions."

Which leads us to the biggest question: Why did he do it? The film is less clear here, even though the filmmakers-and Ellsberg-give us a number of plausible reasons. The film leads us to believe that there was a strong, irrational moral prerogative; this is understandable, because it offers a clean answer. However, it's hard to shake the feeling that Ellsberg decided to release the documents for reasons beyond strategic and intellectual reckoning.

Take his visit to Vietnam in 1965, when he witnessed the situation, first-hand, deteriorating. This is exactly how he saw Vietnam: a situation that had to be decoded. The documentary notes one incident in which the Viet Cong maneuvered between two U.S. platoons, making it impossible for the Americans to attack. "That kind of deftness of the enemy was something that really impressed him as a former Marine troop leader," Ehrlich says. "We were the Red Coats. He came away being clear that we couldn't win this kind of war."

There is a lot of thinking, but not much in the way of empathy. And this, perhaps, is the most important lesson that the film imparts: These high-stakes decisions actually affect people. It's no coincidence that one of the most memorable sequences is a simple animated re-enactment of Ellsberg and his son photocopying top-secret documents. It's silly, but as always, it's pretty exhilarating to break the law-especially if it's for the benefit of the American people.


Save America with Max at [email protected]

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