In the first-rate 1975 political thriller Three Days of the Condor, Robert Redford played an unassuming CIA desk jockey who transforms himself into an action hero to thwart a government conspiracy. Any resemblance to Daniel Ellsberg, the Defense Dept. analyst who had leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971, was coincidental, exaggerated, and fully grokked by audiences at the time.
East Bay filmmakers Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith each had the idea of an Ellsberg documentary and approached the topic independently before joining forces. Given their resumes—Ehrlich’s The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It saluted the principled courage of conscientious objectors during World War II while Goldsmith’s Oscar-nominated Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press profiled an uncompromising journalist who’d retch in disgust at today’s cadre of pundits, sycophants, and stooges—their mutual attraction to the buttoned-down hero is no surprise.
Ehrlich was on vacation—yes, even filmmakers in the throes of a project are allowed a summer holiday—so we got the lowdown on The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers from Goldsmith. "Ellsberg worked in the bowels," Goldsmith recounts. "He helped McNamara plan bombing strategy in Vietnam. He was one of the architects; he was not an insignificant player. How does one get from that point to risking life in prison and excommunication from his circle of colleagues by leaking a top-secret document that he knew could land him in prison?"
The manuscript in question was a 47-volume history of the U.S.’s political and military entanglement in Vietnam, including a host of illegal and quasi-legal activities that had been kept secret from the American people. Its publication drove public mistrust of the government to a new low, and eroded much of the remaining support for the Vietnam War.
"Ellsberg uses the phrase ‘imperial presidency,’’ Goldsmith says. "[Nixon] was acting like a king, and Lyndon Johnson before him. They felt like they were entirely justified to operate in secrecy. If you had to narrow down the essential political issue of the Pentagon Papers leak, it’s national security versus the people’s right to know. Clearly, in 2008, these are issues in our country we’re debating on a daily basis. That’s not going to change with the election."
The filmmakers interviewed Ellsberg, who has lived in the East Bay for several years, on three occasions with more to come. ("He’s a very verbose gentleman," Goldsmith says.) They’re also taping some 20 other players in the drama, from the people who helped Ellsberg photocopy all those thousands of pages to Hedrick Smith, one of the two reporters who wrote the original Times stories. Ehrlich and Goldsmith are eyeing a spring 2009 completion date, which will coincide with the beginning of the post-Bush era and, we’ll wager, a national discussion of executive power, national security, and American democracy.
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