The Most Dangerous Man In America, last year’s rather one-sided documentary feature about Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, has gotten hosannahs from all the expected places, as well as an Oscar nomination. Last night the film had its television premiere on PBS’s POV documentary series, and will be rerun on a number of PBS stations during the rest of the week. Again, it has received fawning writeups in many newspapers and blogs. A major exception to this lovefest is Glenn Garvin of the Miami Herald, who makes some telling points in his review:
The fundamental problem with The Most Dangerous Man is that it’s not really a documentary at all. Narrated by Ellsberg and based largely on his 2002 autobiography, it’s more of an illustrated memoir. Though it includes interviews with reporters, Ellsberg colleagues and other figures in the case, virtually all of them treat him as an unalloyed hero.
The exceptions are Richard Nixon and a few henchmen who can be heard on White House tapes cursing Ellsberg and plotting vengeance. “We’ve got to get this son of a bitch,” snarls Nixon in one of the milder excerpts. They tried, filing criminal charges and even burglarizing the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in search of dirty laundry — an act of over-enthusiasm that would help topple Nixon’s presidency.
Nixon and his minions make easy (and, in many ways, appropriate) villains. But The Most Dangerous Man makes no attempt to put the government’s side of the story in perspective. Ellsberg had just leaked 7,000 pages of classified documents and not just to reporters: A Russian double agent told the FBI a set had been delivered to the Soviet embassy in Washington.
Nobody knew what else Ellsberg had lifted from Pentagon files or what he might be planning to do with it. His ex-wife, though an anti-war activist, told the FBI she thought he was having a mental breakdown. Some of his accomplices were not merely anti war but pro communist, openly supporting North Vietnam’s Stalinist government. If Nixon was paranoid about Ellsberg, he had good reason.
The Most Dangerous Man goes beyond omission to outright falsification in its implication that Nixon was trying to suppress the Pentagon Papers because they showed he was thinking of using nuclear weapons in Vietnam. In fact, the papers contained not a single word about his presidency; their account of the war ended in 1969, before Nixon took office. Nor was he escalating the war, as The Most Dangerous Man implies. When Ellsberg leaked the papers, Nixon had reduced the number of troops from the 536,000 deployed by Lyndon Johnson to 157,000.
What The Most Dangerous Man really needs is Sam Cooke singing on the soundtrack: Don’t know much about history.. . . .