Academy-ready: Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith are taking their documentary on Daniel Ellsberg to the Oscars.

Ehrlich, Goldsmith on Pentagon Papers

Michael Fox February 14, 2010

Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s Academy Award nomination for The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers is, among other things, a validation of the documentary’s right-now relevance. In revisiting the suspenseful events surrounding the formerly hawkish military analyst’s principled decision to leak the military’s classified history of the Vietnam War to the New York Times and 18 other newspapers in 1971, the Berkeley filmmakers inevitably call to mind the Bush Administration’s hyped case for invading Iraq and the media’s abdication of its responsibility to question and investigate. The Most Dangerous Man in America flows naturally from both Ehrlich’s 2002 doc The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It (co-directed with Rick Tejada-Flores) and Goldsmith’s 1996 Oscar nominee, Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press. I sat down separately with Goldsmith and Ehrlich at the Zaentz Media Center in December, smack between their local premiere in the Mill Valley Film Festival and the Academy Award announcement. Currently beginning its national theatrical release through First Run Features, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers opens Friday, February 19, in San Francisco and Berkeley.

SF360: What was the genesis of the project?

Judith Ehrlich: One of my best friends is one of his best friends. So [she] said one day [while] she was helping me with The Good War, ‘Let’s take Dan Ellsberg out to breakfast and just tap his brilliant mind about World War II.’ We sat through breakfast, through lunch, until three in the afternoon. I filled two legal pads with notes on what Dan knew off the top of his head. I thought, ‘This guy is unbelievable.’ I was working on the other film, I couldn’t switch gears, but it was definitely in the back of my mind as one of the things I wanted to get to as soon as I finished.

Rick Goldsmith: I approached Ellsberg in 2002, I think it was, shortly after his book Secrets came out. I still have the letter in my files somewhere. The Most Dangerous Man in America—that was the title of it. And I had an outline, which was similar to the outline that we ended up with. It’s basically the story of his transformation, what happened once the Papers were out there and what happened at the trial. Three acts. I sent it to him and I didn’t hear back. You’ve got 10 files in a drawer, you get distracted. At any rate, he didn’t respond. Then sometime later, Judy came to me—‘cause we knew each other from common circles around here—and said, ‘Hey, what about a film on Daniel Ellsberg.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s funny.’

Ehrlich: We went to see Dan and [his wife] Patricia at the College Preparatory School. They were speaking together, and seeing them together I thought, ‘Hmmm, it’s a love story, too, and it could be a really compelling story.’

SF360: Was it a challenge getting the Ellsbergs to agree?

Ehrlich: Oh, yes. He was being pursued by Errol Morris, Richard Robbins, who made Operation Homecoming and Robert Stone, who made Radio Bikini. In the end, Morris said, ‘It’s OK, I’m not going to do a documentary about Ellsberg. I’m thinking about doing my first feature about him. So you have my blessing.’ At that point, my friend intervened and lobbied heavily for us. (Laughs.) Dan and Patricia had seen Rick’s film because Dan was a character in it. They saw my film and they both said, ‘You’re the right guys.’ [Later], Morris gave us a 500-odd-page interview he did with Ellsberg when he was doing The Fog of War.

SF360: What was the major hurdle in production?

Ehrlich: The hardest thing was that Rick and I did not see the film the same way, and we struggled with it at every juncture. He wanted it to be more journalistic. He didn’t want it to be a character-driven film. He didn’t want to do recreations, he didn’t want Dan’s voice, he didn’t want the cartoons, for sure. We had to work at it and I think that made us have to reach a higher bar. So in the end it was probably a good thing, but it definitely made it take longer and it was more of a struggle.

Goldsmith: We had a difficult relationship; I’ll start by saying that. We saw things differently. When you’re doing a documentary, whose story is it? It’s your story. It’s not Dan’s story, even though it’s a story about Dan, you know what I mean? I felt like there was a pitfall that we had to avoid, and that was to seem like it was Dan telling his story. The main answer to that was we were going to have a lot of voices in there, the people who lived the story. That was going to round out the story, because Dan was going to be our main interview, no question. But I also thought the second part—making it journalistic, or the filmmaker’s story—is you have a narrator. Once we introduced [Ellsberg’s] first-person narration, there was no justification for [a second] narrator. Organically, it became clear. It’s true I was the last one holding out, but I was holding out because I felt like journalistically we needed it. But I think what we ended up with is a very intimate story, and we still have all these other people as well as archival footage to give the other side of things. So I wasn’t so concerned by the end. In fact, I’m very pleased with how that got resolved.

SF360: I appreciate your impulse toward journalistic objectivity. As a viewer, though, I was propelled pretty quickly beyond questions of bias by Ellsberg putting his neck on the line for his beliefs, combined with the realization that the situation he deplored in 1971 is mirrored in our current foreign policy.

Goldsmith: We never say ‘Iraq’ or ‘Afghanistan,’ they just jump out at you. And the idea of somebody being faced with a crisis of conscience is so evident it speaks to the viewer. Dan Ellsberg did something about it, something dramatic, that could have landed him in jail. Look at all the [reporters and Congressmen] that, based on that action, faced a similar crisis and made a choice. That’s one of the reasons the film works: The audience, at almost every frame of the film, you’re facing those big questions. It’s not an objective look, an ‘American Experience,’ if you will, about the Pentagon Papers episode. It’s a very, very personal film. I can see why you got past the objectivity issue, if it even was an issue, because that’s not why you’re watching the film and, in the end, that’s not why we were making the film.

SF360: What is the significance of the film coming out now?

Ehrlich: We thought that if we didn’t get it out before [George W.] Bush got out of office, it wouldn’t be so useful. ‘We’re not going to make it, Bush is going to be gone, we’re not going to have a bad guy.’ As it turns out, the timing couldn’t be better. We have a war that in many, many ways mimics and resonates with the Vietnam War. Obama’s decision to send a lot of troops into Afghanistan–he was juggling with the figure 40,000, which is exactly what [Lyndon] Johnson sent in 1965 and sealed our fate. Ellsberg wrote the speech for Johnson when he announced that. We were talking one day and Dan said, ‘I’m probably the only person alive who understands the inside workings of the Johnson White House when that happened. Almost nobody understands what led up to that decision, and how similar this decision is. I can tell you exactly what’s going on in the White House right now, and they’re making all the wrong decisions.’ He’s adamant how misguided this is.

SF360: What was Ellsberg’s reaction to the documentary?

Ehrlich: He gave us 22 pages of single-spaced notes after seeing the fine cut, which were incredibly useful and great. He always said, ‘It’s your film, I know I don’t have any editorial control, but can I make a suggestion?’ He’s been extremely respectful and extremely helpful, in terms of fact checking. What could be better than having the real guy, who also happens to be brilliant, checking your facts?

SF360: I understand Ellsberg joined you for the Q&As at the festival premiere in Toronto as well as the New York opening, and did most of the talking.

Ehrlich: I think Dan is really beside himself about going into Afghanistan, and has been looking for every opportunity to speak out about it. To me, the most exciting thing about this film is giving him a platform. He has a unique perspective on this war and the current situation and how Vietnam is a lesson that needs to be heeded by the current administration. If the film is a vehicle for getting him out there, I’m totally thrilled.

Goldsmith: Ellsberg gave an interview in 1972 where he was despondent [after Nixon carried 49 states and was reelected, despite the revelations in the Pentagon Papers] and said, ‘You give information to the people and you hope they act on it, and then they don’t.’ He [now] says at Q&As that it did make a difference. He just didn’t know it. And he gives that message to people all the time: If you’re writing your congressman, if you sit in a tree, whatever, don’t think that you’re not making a difference. You might not be able to see it at the time. I feel like the film gives that message to young people. But it means stepping out of your comfort zone and taking a risk.

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