Daniel Ellsberg is an unlikely rebel. A brilliant tactician, Harvard graduate, and committed Cold Warrior, he played a crucial role in mapping out the American strategy in Vietnam. He was so committed that he even lived in Vietnam and worked for Major General Edward Lansdale to see firsthand how the war was going. The more Ellsberg learned about American involvement in Southeast Asia, the more violently disillusioned he became, because he’d been charged with trying to win what he came to see as an unwinnable war. The proud hawk became a passionate dove, setting the stage for Ellsberg to become one of the highest-profile whistle-blowers in American history.
It’s a fascinating story, but in Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s frustratingly conventional The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg And The Pentagon Papers, it doesn’t always make for a fascinating documentary. Drawing heavily on interviews with Ellsberg and contemporaries like Howard Zinn, the film traces Ellsberg’s evolution from a company man committed to winning in Vietnam to a firebrand radical committed to ending the war by any means necessary, even if it meant spending the rest of his life in jail after famously leaking the “Pentagon Papers,” a massive set of classified documents detailing the Pentagon’s botch of the war and the bogus grounds under which it was fought.
Ellsberg’s brooding intensity is alluded to on multiple occasions, yet the film’s portrait of him remains curiously distant—though it’s possible Ellsberg’s work consumed his life to such an extent that he didn’t have much of a private self. Ehrlich and Goldsmith’s style is pure Documentary 101, with a heavy emphasis on talking-head interviews, ominous music, dramatically filmed period photographs, and narration. The filmmakers’ one stylistic curveball—occasional animated segments—feels out of place in such a conventional film. In spite of the dry telling, Dangerous Man develops a cumulative power as Ellsberg risks everything for a cause he believes in. Dangerous Man does a serviceable job of mapping out the particulars of his struggle, but the definitive cinematic version of his too-strange-for-fiction story has yet to be made.