This month, Stanford Summer Session is hosting a Thursday-night film festival about international human rights issues. The series started last week, when “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers,” a recent documentary by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, was shown in Cemex Auditorium.
Ellsberg’s story is a fitting beginning to a film festival about freedom of information and social justice: He is perhaps our best-loved whistleblower, the man who told Americans the truth about the War in Vietnam, when our politicians failed to do so. In the movie, Ellsberg narrates his own drama, explaining how and why he “went public” with the Pentagon Papers.
From the film’s beginning, Ehrlich and Goldsmith are clear about their contention that Ellsberg became a more perfect patriot and public servant when he blew the whistle on the Nixon administration. Before Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, he worked at the Pentagon under Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and in Vietnam, as a civilian in the State Department. As a high-level analyst at RAND, much of his work was geared towards making the war in Vietnam less costly and effective.
But what Ellsberg discovered in the entrails of our nation’s bureaucracy changed his definitions of duty and courage. In 1967, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara commissioned a top-secret study of classified documents, now known as “The Pentagon Papers,” and Ellsberg himself contributed to the report. This “encyclopedic history” of the war revealed what today is old news, that the War in Vietnam was essentially an American creation from its conception. Beginning with Harry Truman in the late 1940s, four presidential administrations deceived the public and Congress about the nature and extent of U.S. involvement in the conflict. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians and 58,000 U.S. service members died because American presidents sought to avoid the political costs of “losing Indochina.”
Collaging together archival film and audio footage, Ehrlich and Goldsmith suggest that relationships catalyzed Ellsberg’s disillusionment with the war. He was inspired by the anti-war activists, such as Janaki Tschannerl and Randy Kehler, whose willingness to go to prison to end the war inspired Ellsberg to take similar risks. Within RAND, Ellsberg found solidarity in another senior analyst, Anthony Russo, who later faced charges of espionage for helping leak the Papers.
“The Most Dangerous Man” is also something of a love story. Ellsberg first met his wife, Patricia Marx, at a peace rally, but their relationship dissolved prematurely, when she disapproved of his work for the Pentagon. Later, after Ellsberg’s about-face on the issue, he and Patricia rekindled their romance. Together, they leaked The Pentagon Papers to the press and went underground to avoid the FBI, when Ellsberg faced charges of espionage and theft.
To be sure, “The Most Dangerous Man” is the profile of an extraordinary man, who braved personal and professional risks to expose the truth. At the same time, the film reminds us that heroes rarely act alone: an individual’s revolutionary contribution is made possible and meaningful by the communities he or she represents.
The movie veers, at times, towards hagiography, leaving questions about accountability and the “public interest” relatively unexplored. It also avoids the more controversial dimensions of Ellsberg’s legacy, including the precedent he set for future leaks.
Today, Ellsberg is known for his vocal support of recent whistleblowers, such as Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. The jury is still out on how these “transparency activists” will be remembered — as traitors or patriots, cowards or heroes. On the other hand, Ellsberg’s reputation seems sealed: he is widely perceived as an emblem of American values, including the power of the First Amendment and emancipatory potential of individualism. Rather than delve into these tensions and paradoxes around public perceptions of whistleblowers, Ehrlich and Goldsmith represent Ellsberg’s experience in a vacuum.
Ultimately, Ellsberg’s saga is timely, moving and suspenseful — and the “The Most Dangerous Man” is both well-researched and artfully edited. Ultimately, the film’s message is larger than any one person or cause: It celebrates the gem-like moments when individuals manage, against all odds, to pick conscience over career, honor over obedience.
Upcoming films in the festival line-up, such as “Bystander,” “WikiRebels” and “Terms and Conditions May Apply,” promise to pick up where “The Most Dangerous Man” finishes, exploring the value of privacy and transparency in the Digital Age.