"Narrated by its whistle-blowing hero (and based in part on two of his books), The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers traces how the doubts of one connected insider - a 'true believer' in American Cold War policy who worked as an analyst for the Defense and State Departments and the Washington-sponsored RAND Corporation - mushroomed into an act of rebellion that eventually helped end a war and the presidency of Richard Nixon." So begins Bill Weber's review in Slant of the documentary that's just screened in Toronto and opens today at New York's Film Forum.
"The Ellsberg story is full of drama, if not much pulse-pounding suspense," writes Benjamin Mercer in the L Magazine: "the man went from being an instrumental force in planning the Vietnam War under Robert McNamara to doing everything in his power to assure the war's swift end. That meant courting incarceration by leaking the 7,000 top-secret pages in question, known as the Pentagon Papers, which provided a sweeping overview of American meddling in Vietnam, or 'this shit-ass little country,' as Richard Nixon once called it."
"It's a story about the arrogance of brilliant men, the days when newspapers had means and relevance, and the ways secrets can become sort of self-protecting, binding world leaders in an exclusive club of silence," writes Noel Murray at the AV Club. "This documentary doesn't do anything special with the material it's presenting, but the material itself is strong, and the filmmakers stay out of its way. Smart move, and smart movie."
"In old age, Ellsberg is still an articulate interviewee; seen in his years of infamy, he resembles a wiry amalgam of the Cassavetes regulars," suggests Nick Pinkerton in the Voice.
"One problem the filmmakers have," finds Mike Hale in the New York Times (one of the papers, of course, that Ellsberg leaked to), "is that the narrative of Mr Ellsberg's disillusionment and of the subsequent First Amendment battle after he leaked the papers is so familiar, and its lessons regarding government malfeasance so accepted, that it has become an official story in its own right. [Directors Judith] Ehrlich and [Rick] Goldsmith try to jack up the tension with moody Errol Morris-style shots of telephones, safes and briefcases, but they're just distracting."
"The movie becomes particularly prescient," notes the Chicago Reader's JR Jones, "as Ehrlich and Goldsmith explore the battle inside the Times over whether to publish the purloined document; the paper's outside attorneys advised them not to publish, but its legal counsel reasoned that there was nothing in the Pentagon Papers that compromised national security; all the document did was tear the curtain away from the decisions that had led America into the war. All the arguments rehearsed during this period, revolving around national security needs versus the public's right to know, came back around during the Bush years as the Times reported on the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program and the CIA's Terrorist Finance Tracking Program."
"Rickety doc or not, Ellsberg deserves every ounce of hero worship he gets here," finds David Fear in Time Out New York, where Joshua Rothkopf talks with Ellsberg and the filmmakers and turns it into a damn fine piece. One detail: "'Errol Morris was seriously thinking about making Ellsberg his first narrative feature too,' [Ehrlich] adds. 'I don't know if that's public knowledge. But Errol ultimately gave us his blessing - and a 500-page interview.'"
David Edelstein in New York: "We have not celebrated Daniel Ellsberg enough. Let's begin."
Intrigued? AJ Schnack collects several more reviews you'll want to check out, then.
Online listening tip. Goldsmith, Ellsberg and Patricia Ellsberg are guests on the Leonard Lopate Show.
Updates, 9/19: "[A]s Ehrlich and Goldsmith tell it, their story has the solid kernel of a Hollywood movie, but one that's basically a love story," writes Phil Nugent. "I didn't know this when I saw the movie, but it seems that the Ellsbergs have already been played by James Spader and Claire Forlani, in a 2003 TV film called The Pentagon Papers, which also featured Paul Giamatti as Tony Russo. I haven't seen it, but Ellsberg shared his impressions of of it here."
Michael Tully at Hammer to Nail: "Gradually, over the course of the film, as Ellsberg himself recounts the story of our country's troubling history with Vietnam, the current situation in Iraq becomes more than just a mere parallel; it becomes a mirror image. And if one makes that virtually unavoidable connection, a more disturbing question emerges: why hasn't this behavior happened more often, throughout the course of history?"
"In spite of the dry telling, Dangerous Man develops a cumulative power as Ellsberg risks everything for a cause he believes in," writes Nathan Rabin at the AV Club. "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."