Daniel Ellsberg changed the course of American history, or so the filmmakers responsible for The Most Dangerous Man in America would have us believe. The thing is, they make a rather compelling case. Tracing the brilliant young Pentagon analyst from his early days -- when he helped find evidence that would convince President Johnson to escalate troop levels in Vietnam -- to his eventual transformation into a selfless peace activist, the movie works as both a history lesson and a character study.
In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg became arguably the most hated man in Richard Nixon's White House after leaking to The New York Times what became known as "The Pentagon Papers" -- a top-secret study he co-authored that explained how American involvement in Vietnam grew from the Truman administration through the late '60s. Ellsberg, a former Marine, began his transformation from hawk to dove after visiting the front lines of the war, and becoming convinced by everything he saw that it was unwinnable.
Few American military wars have been documented as thoroughly, and memorably, as Vietnam, so, instead of fighting against 50 years of iconic imagery, the directors offer a concise but complete explanation of how every president from Truman to Nixon lied to the country about military activities in Southeast Asia. By offering this thorough picture of history, the film paints Ellsberg as an even more heroic figure -- it's not just Nixon he exposed by leaking the Pentagon Papers, but 30-plus years of American culpability.
However, it's Ellsberg's personal story that makes for the more compelling moments in the film. He willingly sat for extensive interviews with the filmmakers and his intelligence, as well as his candor, is appealing -- he is as moved today by a sense of righteousness as he was when he made the fateful decision to leak such sensitive information. When Ellsberg sits down with the one-time anti-war demonstrator whose speech decades earlier moved him to take action, he chokes up with the force of his emotions. It's a small moment, but one that resonates because it makes plain that fighting the system requires a massive amount of confidence and decisiveness. Regardless of your political stance, it's hard not to admire the passion and brains Ellsberg displays.
If you know or lived through this period of history, it's doubtful The Most Dangerous Man in America will teach you anything you didn't already know, but as a portrait of how one man's bravery and personal convictions can change the world, it's a compelling experience.