The Oscar-nominated documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America is like Avatar for activists. Slip into this movie and suddenly you’re riding shotgun on Daniel Ellsberg’s shoulder as the Pentagon war planner turned peace activist makes the fateful decision that will eventually topple a president. But, for all its national and geopolitical ramifications, Dangerous Man is a hometown product. Daniel and Patricia Ellsberg reside in Kensington and co-directors Rick Goldsmith and Judith Ehrlich are based in Berkeley. Goldsmith has an office at the Saul Zaentz Media Center in West Berkeley; Ehrlich teaches film at Berkeley City College and rents workspace over Bubi’s.
Dan Ellsberg was not just another war hawk. A former Marine company commander with a Harvard Ph.D., Ellsberg wrote Lyndon Johnson’s Tonkin Gulf speech—framing the hoax that launched the nation into war—and ginned up evidence to justify the carpet-bombing of Vietnam. But pouring over all 7,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg discovered how five presidents—Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon—had all brazenly lied to the American people about Vietnam. “It’s not that we were on the wrong side,” Ellsberg realized. “We were the wrong side. It was a crime from the start.”
Ellsberg’s physical appearance began to reflect his moral conversion. The Marine buzz-cut gave way to sideburns and a crown of ’60s curls as Rambo morphed into Rimbaud. But the reborn anti-war strategist soon found that evidence of a crime is useless if you can’t hand it to the cops. Ellsberg gave the Pentagon Papers to several anti-war politicians—including presidential candidate George McGovern—but no one dared reveal the damning information contained in a top-secret document. After the politicians failed him, Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. When White House lawyers tried to silence the Times, the news establishment famously revolted—one newspaper after another publishing portions of the leaked document. It was the Fourth Estate’s version of the Sproul Hall sit-in.
Ellsberg and Tony Russo went on trial for “theft” in 1973 but, after four months, the trial collapsed around revelations that Nixon’s “plumbers” had illegally tapped Ellsberg’s phone and burglarized the office of his psychiatrist. (The White House also screwed up by attempting to bribe the judge by offering him the directorship of the FBI.) All charges were dismissed and the defendants were freed—and free to speak.
That same week, Congress voted to cut off further funding for the war, but still the war dragged on. Whenever Dan and Patricia spoke to the media, they made a point to mention the number of U.S. bombs dropped over Southeast Asia: “200,000 tons! One Hiroshima a week!” Sadly, Ellsberg recalls, the press “didn’t even mention we’d said it, let alone reflect on the fact that it was happening.” Exposing lies was not enough, Ellsberg learned. People looked at the evidence, absorbed it, and moved on to something else. Had Nixon been impeached and jailed, that might have halted the metastasis of the Imperial Presidency.
The film meticulously recreates Ellsberg’s film-noir, think-tank world with ’60s-era manual typewriters and bakelite desk phones. Xerox offered a vintage copier but the logistics proved too daunting for a low-budget documentary, so Ehrlich’s husband, Nick Bertoni of the Tinker’s Workshop, fabricated a passable look-alike out of truck parts. But who provided the copies of the Pentagon Papers that appear in the film? Did Ellsberg keep a personal copy all these years?
“We made them, “ Ehrlich chuckles. “We worked from the real documents in the National Archives.” Goldsmith adds: “One of our researchers dug out photocopies of the cover at the LBJ library in Texas. We reproduced them and made our own Pentagon Papers.”
It took six months of wooing before Ellsberg agreed to let Rick and Judy transform his book, Secrets, into a film. With three other filmmakers bidding for the opportunity, it probably helped that Ellsberg had worked with Judy on her earlier award-winning PBS documentary, The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It.
“He gave us total editorial control. He was very clear about that,” Judy told the Planet. Dan and Patricia didn’t see the film until the filmmakers screened a “fine cut” at the Ellsberg’s home. “Dan took out a notepad and started taking notes,” Judy recalls, “He’s always taking notes.” The next day, Ellsberg told the filmmakers he’d watched the DVD five more times and had a few suggestions. “He gave us 22-pages of single-spaced commentary!” Judy recalls. She described the notes as “extremely helpful and detailed.”
There was a debate over whether to have Ellsberg narrate the film. In the end, Ellsberg agreed to lend his voice—as one of many compelling speakers in the film. With Ellsberg’s voice emerging over archival photos and videos, we seem to be inside Ellsberg’s head, listening to his thoughts rather than listening to a narrative.
Twenty remarkable interviews are featured, including sit-downs with two former Nixon operatives (John Dean and Egil “Bud” Krogh) and Ellsberg’s long-time friend and fellow activist, the late historian Howard Zinn. “They said we’d never get Kissinger, and they were right!” Rick chuckles. Ditto Al Haig. The filmmakers did manage to catch up with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam following a speech at UC Berkeley. After recording a fascinating interview on “a crappy tape-recorder that wasn’t broadcast quality,” Halberstam signed on to the project. Tragically, he was killed in a car crash later that night.
There’s a marvelous scene in Dangerous Man where a gray-haired Ellsberg is entertaining children at a Berkeley garden party. The kids gape and giggle as Ellsberg pulls colored scarves out of his hands and makes them vanish. This is followed by a moment of pure cinematic magic: Thanks to a film editor who found an old 8mm clip, we next see Ellsberg in the 1960s, doing magic tricks with scarves and delighting a group of laughing children in a village in Vietnam.
“That’s something we discovered about Dan,” Judy says. “He’s always carrying scarves in his pockets.” She speculates that this gift for sleight-of-hand may have helped Ellsberg whisk the Pentagon Papers past the Rand Corporation’s security guards.
The filmmakers caught another extraordinary moment where Ellsberg and Randy Kehler are reminiscing at a kitchen table and Ellsberg suddenly breaks into tears. He has just recalled the speech that Kehler, then a young draft resister, gave as he prepared to face prison. His voice breaking, Ellsberg explains that was the moment that changed his life. The moment when he knew he needed to break the law, betray his professional trust and risk his personal freedom to get the Pentagon Papers before the eyes of the public.
“So few of us have a moment like that,” Judy marvels. But this extraordinary moment almost didn’t happen. On the day of the shoot, she explains, “everyone was busy and needed to be somewhere else. There wasn’t even time for a proper lighting.” For most of the conversation, Ellsberg’s face was lost in shadow. It took some creative (and costly) visual enhancement to salvage this remarkable scene.
Dangerous Man marks the first time Richard Nixon’s secretly taped outbursts will be widely heard without the expletives deleted. Here is Nixon railing against the New York Times (“That son-of-a-bitching paper”), the Vietnamese resistance (“We’ve got to use the maximum power of this country against this shit-ass little country”), and his advisor, Henry Kissinger (“You’re so goddamned concerned about the civilians and I don’t give a damn. I don’t care!”). But the most horrific exchange (one that deserves to be hung on Nixon’s tombstone and nailed to the wall International War Crimes Tribunal) occurred between Nixon and Kissinger on April 25, 1972:
Nixon: I think we ought to take the dikes out now. Will that drown people?
Kissinger: That will drown about 200,000 people.
Nixon: Well, no, no, no, no, no, I’d rather use a nuclear bomb. Have you got that ready?
Kissinger: That, I think, would just be too much, uh…
Nixon: A nuclear bomb. Does that bother you? I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christsakes.
Since becoming a peace activist four decades ago, Daniel Ellsberg has been arrested more than 70 times. In 2006, he was honored with the Right Livelihood Award (“the Alternative Nobel Prize”) for “putting peace and truth first, at considerable personal risk.”
Will the Ellsbergs will be accompanying the filmmakers to the Academy Awards? “That’s the plan,” says Judy. Rick will be renting a tux. As of press time, Judy was still looking for a gown.
Note: The Pentagon Papers can be found online at www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/pentagon/pejnt1.html