Sydney Morning Herald
THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA
Directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith Screenplay by Lawrence Lerew, Rick Goldsmith, Judith Ehrlich, Michael Chandler Rated PG, 93 minutes Reviewed by Sandra Hall Chauvel ROBERT ELLSBERG still sounds shell-shocked when recalling his appearance at the treason trial of his father, Daniel, in 1971. At 15 he was forced to testify before a grand jury who had the power to put his father in prison for the rest of his life. Knowledge is power but it can be an intolerable burden if the secrets you keep are burning a hole in your conscience. That's the way Daniel Ellsberg, a US defence analyst, was feeling in 1969. He had just become privy to a top-secret official report detailing the unpalatable history of America's involvement with Vietnam, all the way back to the Truman administration's sponsorship of the French invasion in 1945. This study had been commissioned by the Defence Secretary, Robert McNamara. Since Ellsberg had worked for him as a Pentagon analyst, he knew how McNamara felt about the war. In private, McNamara despaired about its outcome. In public, he declared that victory was possible. It was a practised strategy. As the report outlined, a series of US presidents had been just as duplicitous. JFK had told the world that the US would only be sending advisers when he was already planning a military follow-up, and Lyndon Johnson had expanded the US presence after promising he would do no such thing. Ellsberg, too, had once believed in the war. Not only was he a strategist, he had served as a Marine company commander. But he had argued against the bombing of the north. Now he defined America's part in hostilities as ''unjustified homicide''. Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, who directed this feature documentary, are not out to question the wisdom or the morality of Ellsberg's decision to copy and release the secret report's 47 volumes, which were to become notorious as ''the Pentagon Papers''. It's his story, drawn partly from his own book about his actions and their aftermath. He also appears on screen - a still-handsome 79-year-old who harbours no regrets. Yet the film avoids hagiography mainly because he is so frank when it comes to the thornier aspects of his whistleblowing. He knew that some very close friends among his fellow analysts would regard him as a traitor. And still he had no qualms, believing that E.M. Forster was wrong with his argument that it is better to betray your country than your friends. In this case the Forster policy, he says, would simply have cost more lives. More startling is his admission that he had his young children help him with the mammoth task of photocopying the files. Even though his ex-wife didn't want them implicated, Robert, his younger brother and their 10-year-old sister were all recruited. For Ellsberg, the private and the public had conflated so thoroughly that he thought that his children should be given the chance to be in on history. Ehrlich and Goldsmith have made an elegantly evocative film of these events using black-and-white footage, playful little bursts of animation, which are strangely at odds with the prevailing moral seriousness, and photographs of rallies, protests and White House policy meetings with the Nixon tapes as soundtrack. The camera takes a forensic approach to these photographs, gently gliding over them as if the past were an underwater realm setting off a ripple effect which inevitably impinges on our own world. One of the most heartening parts of the story centres on the performance of the media. When Ellsberg could find no senator brave enough to read the report on the floor of the Senate, The New York Times stepped in, risking Nixon's fury and a White House lawsuit to run an extract. The night before it went to press, Ellsberg persuaded a few friends to come with him to a screening of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. No doubt he identified with both outlaws. But in the end, the treason charges were dismissed after it was learnt that Nixon's men, G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt, had broken into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office looking for incriminating information. The Watergate era had arrived.