The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009)


(Streaming on Netflix as of 10/24/2011)

This movie has everything: a protagonist with an amazing character arc, villains, action, plot twists, political intrigue, romance, court room drama, the tragedies of war, historical significance, and tough moral and ethical questions. And to top it all off…it’s a true story.

I confess. I was pretty ignorant about Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers, and their role in ending the Vietnam War (and Nixon’s presidency). This coming from someone who took history electives on the Vietnam War in both high school and college. So in addition to it being a totally engaging movie in dramatic terms, The Most Dangerous Man in America is a fascinating history lesson. Especially in the context of the events that have led up to and kept us embroiled in the current wars we’re fighting. It’s difficult to watch this documentary and not think we’re making shamefully similar mistakes in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

If you don’t want to risk spoilers, stop reading now. Otherwise…

This is the story of two men who shaped American history during the mid-twentieth century. One was a hawk who was in large part responsible for the escalation of American involvement in Vietnam. The other was a dove who risked his freedom to expose the lies of four consecutive presidents and help end the war. What’s so amazing is that Daniel Ellsberg was both of these men.

Having recently read Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), a study of cognitive dissonance, I am aware just how rare it is for a person to switch sides on an emotionally charged issue as divisive as the Vietnam War. How could the same man play such drastically different roles? That is the central question that this film answers.

I’m not sure I totally know what a “hero” is or isn’t, but I suspect that most of us would agree that at least part of what makes someone a hero is their willingness to put themselves at risk for the higher good. And by that measure, Daniel Ellsberg is indeed a hero.

More info at IMDb, RottenTomatoes, and Amazon.com.

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