Why Daniel Ellsberg May Still Be the 'Most Dangerous Man in America'

In June 1971, when the Nixon White House discovered its colleague Daniel Ellsberg had leaked 7,000 pages of top-secret documents on the history of the Vietnam War to the New York Times, Henry Kissinger called Ellsberg "the most dangerous man in America." Ellsberg's dramatic transformation from war planner to war resister made him extremely dangerous to the powers that be.

Four decades later, his continued insistence on pointing out the problems with a permanent state of war make him a problem to those same powerful interests. In this historical moment Daniel Ellsberg is uniquely qualified to draw provocative parallels between the Vietnam War and the Afghanistan occupation.

In 1965, Ellsberg, a top Pentagon military analyst, wrote the speech in which President Lyndon Johnson announced he would send 40,000 troops to Vietnam and make real our nascent war. This act definitively catapulted us into a hopeless conflict that would last another 10 years. For Ellsberg, Obama's recent call-up of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan was painfully reminiscent.

But was it done for the same reason, to avoid being the president who lost a war? That was the motivation of five earlier presidents that the Pentagon Papers revealed to the American people. That top-secret history of war-making in Vietnam made it clear that presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon all lied to the American people about our prospects for success in Southeast Asia. Each knew it was hopeless and yet stayed, escalating our involvement to avoid being the president left standing at the end of the game of musical chairs. That "game" was to kill millions in Southeast Asia before our eventual defeat. And now in 2010, the former military strategist tells us it's an encore performance. Not as humid, more sand, but pretty much the same quagmire.

This week the documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers will open in New York followed by theatrical openings around the country over the next few months. Co-director Rick Goldsmith and I have been producing this film for over four years. (Watch the trailer at the bottom of this article.)

When asked why we made this film we often answer, "Are you asking, why tell this true story of risk, intrigue, government misconduct, murder, cover-up, love and spiritual awakening and an unparalleled act of conscience that helped to stop a war and bring down an imperial presidency?" A better question might be, "How come no one beat us to it and how did we get so lucky?"

A partial answer to that query begins with Daniel Ellsberg's long overdue autobiography, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, which was published in 2002. Prior to that he didn't want a film to scoop his version of the story. When we came along there were three other filmmakers in line. It took six months to convince Dan and his wife, Patricia, that we were the right team. Our previous films about risk-takers motivated by conscience finally convinced them. But we wanted this film to break new ground stylistically; to be both a political thriller with the feel of a feature film and a sound piece of historical filmmaking that would be the definitive telling of these compelling events.

There was a made-for-TV movie produced shortly before Secrets was released, starring James Spader as Ellsberg. The movie wasn't all bad, but not a word was spoken to the Ellsbergs about the production. Patricia Ellsberg said that while the movie got all the facts wrong, it captured the spirit and "we liked it because we looked so good." We wanted to make a film that got the facts straight and still looked good (which was remarkably easy because the Ellsbergs really do look good in hours of archival footage as well as the present-day).

In 1971 Dan Ellsberg was one of the best and brightest, a Harvard PhD, Pentagon insider and Paul Newman lookalike with a gorgeous and brilliant wife who was heir to the fortune of the world's largest toymaker. Dan had attended a top prep school and went on to graduate from Harvard with honors and then command a platoon of Marines. They had lived a charmed life.

Then Dan read the secret Pentagon report and realized that the presidents he had worked for and believed in deeply habitually lied to the people of the United States about why they went to war and whether or not they could win. He decided he was willing to risk life in prison to tell the truth. Patricia joined her new husband and they went underground to make more copies, hiding out from the largest FBI manhunt since the Lindbergh kidnapping. After Dan poked his fingers in Nixon's eyes and made sure enough newspapers had the documents to prove his case, he revealed his identity to hundreds of reporters and took full responsibility for exposing the truth of the unjust war in Vietnam.

This film begs the question: Where are the Daniel Ellsbergs of today? There have been a few government whistle-blowers. Last fall former Marine Corps captain Matthew Hoh, a State Department employee stationed in Zabul Province, a Taliban hotbed, became the first U.S. official to resign in protest over the Afghan war, which he had come to believe was fueling the insurgency. But he didn't walk out with documents. Dan still rushed to meet him and support his courageous act. On tour with the film Dan ends most Q&As by asking the audience if anyone has secret documents they can leak and help to end the senseless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Don't do what I did; don't wait till the bombs drop," he says.

But the questions raised by this film go deeper than war and peace, although they look at the variables of those two poles in depth. The film plumbs the question of conscience and action in the world, the possibility of civil courage, which is much rarer than the courage of a warrior in battle. Civil courage is having the courage to look foolish, to make the difficult choice to give up privilege, to do the right thing and disobey one's boss.

It turns out that the story of one man's courageous act in 1971 resonates across age, race and gender borders, and across time. It is the story of an act of conscience that actually made a difference, shortening a war and helping to force a dangerous president out of the White House. It transmits a message sorely lacking in the soundbite world of compromise that passes for political and public action today.

Earlier this month I showed The Most Dangerous Man in America at the Palm Springs Film Festival to a diverse audience of 1,000 high school students from the region. The atmosphere bristled with energy. As the lights came on 100 hands shot into the air, followed by a barrage of questions asking how they could be better citizens, make a difference, do the right thing. The students didn't need to have prior knowledge of these historic events to get the underlying message.

For four years, I have shared the evolving production process of this film with my classes in documentary film history at Berkeley Community College. Last week, the first night of the new semester, I screened the finished film for a classroom bursting at the seams (symptomatic of an educational system suffering terrible cuts). One student raised his hand during the discussion that followed. "Wow," he said, his eyes a bit glazed. "That was amazing. I didn't know any of that. I feel like I haven't been told the real story about anything. What else don't I know?"

Another student said, "Did you actually meet Howard Zinn making this film?" The renowned truth-teller Howard Zinn passed away Wednesday. He played a big part in these events, in Ellsberg's life and in our film. He would have been with us at our screening in Los Angeles in February. Come see the film, and savor your screen time with these two dangerous accomplices in the fine art of truth-telling.

See the First Run Features Web site for playdates and details about the film.

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