The Most Dangerous Man in America (USA, 2009)

Doco about Daniel Ellsberg, an ex-Marine Pentagon/Rand staffer whose eventual conclusion that Vietnam was unwinnable then turned to horror when he discovered that the U.S. had been the instigator from the beginning. Ellsberg then leaked the history of the origins of the Vietnam War, first to senators and congressmen who did nothing with the information, and then directly to the press. Cue uproar, and Nixon in full-on supervillain fury mode.

Ellsberg was disappointed that the leak didn’t have the impact he’d hoped. Predictably, the story became about him, not about the facts of the origins of Vietnam. The fury he must have felt watching the similarly contrived build-up to war in Iraq can only be guessed at; Ellsberg is depicted protesting against that war too.

I found this fascinating and educational. I only knew the broad strokes of this story, so it was great to have it unpacked and explored. And as much as Ellsberg was unhappy the story became about him, his personal story is indeed fascinating, such as his on-again off-again love affair with a woman tied to the peace movement while he was working in the Pentagon on the war.

I would have appreciated a bit more detail on the secret history Ellsberg was unveiling. The collusion of five U.S. Presidents in lying about Vietnam was sketched very briefly – a few more minutes on the subject seems worthwhile to me, as I expect many in the audience would be just as uncertain about the detail as I am.

Apart from that, a solid doco, well-made, about a subject that rewards the interest. It doesn’t strive to illuminate any higher truth, which is probably to its benefit. To be honest, it felt like reading a really well-written chunk of journalism from the New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly, and I mostly mean that as a compliment but an also an observation about style. A lot of film docos use the medium to explore things no magazine article could touch, but I don’t think that was much the case here. This was a more traditional journalistic style, rigorous and eye-opening. Recommended.

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One thought on “The Most Dangerous Man in America (USA, 2009)”

  1. I found the film interesting for the little insights it gave beyond the national security implications. The fact that his kids helped him with the photocopying I found to be remarkable little snippet.

    If you’re interested in actual primary sources from this era, I’d recommend the National Security Archive at George Washington University ( If you have university database access, there’s also the Digital National Security Archive which provides a searchable database of individual documents.


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