By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010; WE28
"The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers" was nominated last week for an Oscar for Best Documentary, and rightly so. Although Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's film deserves recognition as an exemplary piece of nonfiction filmmaking, it pulses with the suspense and momentum of a sleek thriller -- a wily caper flick that just happens to revolve around one of the most crucial chapters in recent American history.
As "The Most Dangerous Man in America" opens, Ellsberg describes how, in the fall of 1969, he photocopied 7,000 pages of a classified history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and ultimately made it public in the New York Times, The Washington Post and other outlets. A highly respected strategic analyst who served in the Pentagon, at the State Department and at the Rand Corp., Ellsberg had been a committed Cold Warrior and a supporter of the Vietnam War through most of his career. It was only when he read the war's secret history, beginning with Harry Truman supporting French forces against an indigenous Vietnamese nationalist movement, that Ellsberg came to see the war as one built on lies.
Narrated by Ellsberg and told through a carefully layered collage of archival footage, reenactments, animation and present-day interviews with eyewitnesses, "The Most Dangerous Man in America" grabs viewers with intrigue and high-stakes derring-do and never lets go. After a combination breakdown-breakthrough, when he decides to risk his career and blow the whistle, Ellsberg is hounded by Richard Nixon's administration and the FBI, indicted on charges that could mean life in jail and finally targeted in a plot that would come to light during the Watergate investigation. Like a Rosetta Stone linking Vietnam, Watergate, the role of the press in a democracy and the enduring tension between national security and the public's right to know, "The Most Dangerous Man in America" manages to be both engrossing history and astonishingly germane to present-day political debates.
Most amazingly, "The Most Dangerous Man in America" succeeds not just as a documentary, but also as an example of genres that most fiction films struggle to get right: It has romance (Ellsberg's off-and-on early relationship with his wife, Patricia), action (late-night meetings in front of the Mayflower Hotel), family drama (he enlisted his two kids in the photocopying effort, with sobering results) and, most important, the classic, compelling tale of one man's moral courage in face of corrupt and overweening state power. There's even the occasional dash of unlikely comedy, especially in the profane presidential outbursts captured on the Nixon tapes. If you find yourself laughing, it's only because it hurts too much to cry.
*** 1/2 Unrated. At Landmark's E Street Cinema. Contains occasional profanity. 94 minutes.