THE TITULAR SUBJECT of The Most Dangerous Man in America isn't a serial killer or covert terrorist embedded in our midst, but Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971. Chronicling the status, strategies, and motives of the United States' involvement in Vietnam, the huge, top-secret document inspired widespread outrage and protests, and deepened the American people's distrust in the government.
The documentary, directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, uses Ellsberg's own narration alongside historical footage, audio from potty-mouth Dick Nixon's secret tapes, and interviews to create a biographical focus on Ellsberg as a hero and champion of America's ideals, with modest acknowledgement of the opposing view of him as a traitor. Though the film's intention to lionize Ellsberg is clear, there's no whiff of manipulation; history has vindicated his actions, and as a history lesson it's a sound recounting of a series of events that have been underrepresented in modern accounts of 20th century American history. For those who weren't alive when it unfolded, it's a story that barely registers a blip on the radar in relation to its potential as a powerful example of someone working behind the curtain who managed to screw up the courage to do the right thing—despite jeopardy to his own career and security.
While edifying and inspiring on the surface, America is ultimately depressing. Perhaps even more so than the rank-and-file citizenry, it should be required viewing for anyone in public office. The filmmakers don't push the issue of history repeating itself, but it would be difficult to ignore the fact that cover-ups and deliberate misinformation continue to pervade the relationships between government and governed, perhaps most lethally in times of war. Ultimately it's dismaying that courage and selfless, morally informed decision-making are so rare as to warrant this kind of fanfare. Daniel Ellsberg will be in attendance at the 4:30 and 7 pm screenings on Friday and Saturday.