First Run Features // 2009 // 94 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // July 14th, 2010
"This is an attack on the whole integrity of government. If whole file cabinets can be stolen and then made available to the press, you can't have orderly government anymore." -- Henry Kissinger
The filing cabinets of the United States government hold some pretty hefty secrets about economics, technology, and war (and probably aliens or something). So one would assume that folks with access to those secrets would need to be pretty tight-lipped about them, even if they disagreed with their findings.
What if someone with access to those secrets decided to use them against his government to stop a war he didn't believe in? That just might make him The Most Dangerous Man in America.
Daniel Ellsberg was at one time a leading figure behind the buildup to the Vietnam War. He worked closely with President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in the conflict's early stages, and soon went to Vietnam himself as an ambassador.
Then something changed. While in Vietnam, Ellsberg determined that the war was a stalemate. Upon his return, a top-secret 7,000 page report was created by the Pentagon, chronicling the war's history. Ellsberg soon discovered that the previous four presidents had been secretly involved in the region. While he was never quite on board with the war in the first place, Ellsberg suddenly wanted this thing to end. With newly-elected President Nixon showing no signs of living up to his campaign promise of an honorable conclusion, Ellsberg took matters into his own hands: he leaked the report to the press.
There have been a lot of documentaries, films, and TV specials on the Vietnam War. I haven't seen them all. So The Most Dangerous Man in America may not be as surprising to others as it was to me. The documentary, narrated by Daniel Ellsberg himself, is a political thriller about a Pentagon insider who used his security clearance to try and stop the very war he helped start. It's an absorbing film that, while not perfect, presents an insider's view of a controversial war.
Ellsberg begins the film as a hawkish strategist and RAND employee, but after visiting Vietnam and attending some peace rallies, his moral objections to the conflict begin to take hold. At times his narration and on-camera interviews can be stirring, other times things feel slightly melodramatic -- especially with the film's constant use of faceless re-enactments. The historical significance of the events, and the interviews and news footage incorporated with the story, give the film Herculean weight, regardless of your feelings about the war itself. This man took matters into his own hands and changed history.
Aside from key interviews from Ellsberg, his wife Patricia, his cohort Tony Russo, and countless other politicians, agents, and reporters, The Most Dangerous Man also features extensive audio recordings from Nixon's White House. True to his Futurama persona, Nixon comes off as a crazy man, ordering the shut-down of various newspapers and discussing nuclear options with Kissinger. Every president, from Truman to Johnson, is painted as a villain, but Nixon is the one most affected and involved with the leak of the Pentagon Papers.
The documentary, which was nominated for an Academy Award, does have a few flaws. Particularly, the filmmakers' insistence on using crude animation to dramatize various events. The History Channel-style reenactments seem like a stretch for a big time documentary, but cheap Flash animation and corny sound effects really squandered some intense moments. Regardless, the history presented here is intriguing enough to survive any odd choices by directors Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith.
The DVD is a mixed bag so far as the video transfer is concerned. The historical footage and photography are stunning, but the interviews and re-enactments have a low-budget, digital feel to them. The war footage is especially startling, and all of it -- aside from those previously mentioned animated segments -- is treated with utmost seriousness. The disc also features two promotional interviews with Woody Harrelson and Naomi Wolf, and a whole slew of audio clips from Nixon's White House tapes. The Nixon clips are a nice touch, except that they require an annoying amount of menu navigation to get to them all.
The Most Dangerous Man in America is a real-life political thriller that never strays too far from the personal element of Daniel Ellsberg, despite its heavy historical significance. It may have a few missteps, production-wise, but remains a compelling story about one man's fight against war, the Pentagon, and a very grumpy president.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (CC)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Vintage Audio
* Official Site