Monday, April 5, 2010

"Most Dangerous Man in America" review

No, I'm not dead. I've just been taking two weeks off, mostly because I spent last week at the PCA/ACA national conference. Blogging should get back to normal...

Property The Daily Gamecock

A story of secret papers, multiple U.S. presidents, a war that divided the country on several levels, personal integrity and an argument about freedom of the press. No, it’s not “All the President’s Men,” it’s directors’ Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.”

Nominated this past year for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, the film details the events leading to and the fallout from the New York Times’ 1971 decision to publish a series of top secret documents about the Vietnam War that became known as the Pentagon Papers.

Specifically, the story revolves around Daniel Ellsberg, a Pentagon aide who decides photocopy and turn over to the press nearly 7,000 pages of information about the Vietnam War in order to try and stop it.

“The Most Dangerous Man in America” sheds a spotlight on a pivotal moment in national discourse. A wealth of narrative and documentary films have been made regarding the Vietnam War or Nixon’s presidency, but this is one of the few that tries to align a moral conscience behind the proceedings.

As a piece of ethics and debate, the film tackles its issue head-on. Using interviews from many of the key players involved, including Ellsberg, it dissects what went wrong with Vietnam while at the same time arguing both why Ellsberg felt he had to release the papers to help his country, and how others felt this represented an act of treason.

The film tells its history as well as it can, firmly establishing the perspective of the individuals involved and using their testimonies to steer the narrative. It tries to put a human face on a political and ethical issue.

While it’s a great story and captivating for most of its 94-minute run time, “Most Dangerous Man” doesn’t really take any risks with documentary form. Much of the film is told through “talking head” interviews, with subjects framed in perfectly lit interview shots.

Other sections of the film rely on a wealth of archival photos, news reports and several well-timed dramatic recreations to try and create diversity in how the story is presented. While it works, it doesn’t particularly set the film apart.

Though it strives for, and occasionally hits, a sour note on a pivotal moment in our country’s political discourse, it still plays more like a History Channel documentary.

Directors Ehrlich and Goldsmith sublimate the form of their documentary to its content. There’s nothing wrong with that; its let the viewer focus on what’s happening as opposed to how it’s being presented, which is helpful if the filmmakers are trying to “teach” this historic event to those who may be unfamiliar with it.

But Daniel Ellsberg was a risk-taker, someone who put his whole career on the line in the name of what he believed was right, and for the documentary to play it so safe, so simple, makes it hard for the film to really jump into the compelling.

The beginning of the film briefly discusses Ellsberg’s relationship to Robert S. McNamara, and the former Secretary of Defense’s mention can’t help but call to mind Errol Morris’s powerful and provocative 2003 documentary “The Fog of War,” a film that tackles the issue of the Vietnam War and what went wrong with exacting visual prowess.

“The Most Dangerous Man in America” is a film worth watching, if only for how it helps discuss the importance of the political moment. It entertains, it tells its story well, but it tells it a little too typically.

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