The Most Dangerous Man in America
This Oscar-nominated documentary, like the film that won the award, The Cove is an investigative thriller in documentary form. The Most Dangerous Man in America tells the story of Daniel Ellsberg, the man who earned that monicker after he copied and eventually leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and almost 20 other newspapers. This leak kick-started the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s ensuing presidential resignation.
Similar to the way The Cove’s central protagonist, Rick O’Barry, is a former Flipper trainer-turned-dolphin-freeing activist, the events depicted in this film also come as the result of a dramatic personal transformation. Ellsberg, who also narrates the film, was a former Marine who later became a Vietnam War planner. He witnesses first hand this onslaught of lies and essentially invented conflict, leading him to turn against the war.
Sympathizing with the Vietnamese civilians and American military casualties, he comes to the conclusion that we are indeed the enemy and we must be stopped. Luckily, he has the insider knowledge and the balls to influence a change.
In the midst of all this deception and corruption is a pretty engaging love story between Ellsberg, baring a striking resemblance to Paul Newman, and his wife, Patricia. Their first date took place when he was an military analyst under President Lyndon B. Johnson and she was a picketing anti-war activist. They put off dating for a few years, but she ultimately found herself hiding in hotel rooms with him when the police were on his tail.
A lot of the movie’s more entertaining moments come courtesy of Nixon’s foul-mouthed tirades caught on tape. It’s just hysterical and jaw-dropping to hear a former president consistently use phrases like “shit-ass” and “sons of bitches.” There are also some really strong moments when the camera is left on the interviewee for a few moments after they make their statement. This technique is effective in pulling out the subject’s true feelings as we see their unaltered physical expressions.
It’s truly an incredible story, but the fascinating story we are being told by Ellsberg and a number of other witnesses and political experts is rarely matched by the film’s imagery. Although we are faced with all the documentary standards (talking heads, still shots, archival footage), it all still feels remarkably cinematic. In particular, there is one conversation that is set up as a over-the-shoulder two-shot, just like you would see in any Hollywood narrative film. For once, Ellsberg is talking to another person rather than just a camera. Not only do we hear his message, we also see the reaction of that message’s receiver. Action and reaction. That’s the basis of cinema.
RIYL: Hearts and Minds, JFK, Frost/Nixon.