Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sun Apr 04, 2010 9:20 pm 
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Daniel Ellsberg surrenders to Federal authorities with wife Patricia in Boston, June 28, 1971.
Photo by Cary Wolinsky shown in The Most Dangerous Man in America: .


The anti-war activist par excellence

The full title of the film doesn't fit in the slot above. It's: The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. This documentary, which is one of last year's best and was nominated for the Oscar subsequently won by Psihoyos' The Cove, lets its subject (and hero) speak for himself: he is the narrator. You may feel that it can hardly be taken in fully at one go -- that you ought to sneak back to see it more, maybe look up some of the history involved. The twists and turns of events, the turbulent full political context, are complicated indeed. But maybe what you really cannot assimilate is the complexity of the man himself, and the feeling contemplating that complexity gives you of being very small in comparison.

It still seems hard to understand the Pentagon Papers story. Seven thousand pages, finally published or written about at the time by a dozen or more big city papers, so it became impossible to suppress them: what are the Pentagon Papers? I was around then, but I never read them. Who did? Why did they turn the tide against the Vietnam War? Did they do that? Ultimately the Nixon administration's "dirty tricks" men, the "plumbers," brought down Nixon for their mission in California of breaking into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office. It was the last straw. And why was that? Coming after the exposure of the Watergate break-ins, this clumsy, stupid act further showed Nixon's henchmen for for the Keystone-Cop thugs they were, and the game was up for Nixon, though the war was to be pursued by Lyndon B. Johnson, and ultimately take him down, though more honorably.

Ellsberg was one of those at the Rand Corporation in 1967-68 who contributed to a top-secret study of classified documents related to the conduct of the Vietnam War commissioned by Defense Secretary McNamara, later known as "the Pentagon Papers." Perusing these documents, Ellsberg discovered total cynicism about the war at the highest level all along. Officials knew the war would lead to heavy casualties and not be won, and expressed an indifference to loss of human life and to the outcome of the conflict that totally shocked him. Eventually this shock led to his decision that he couldn't be silent about this, could not be a good soldier and play the game any more; that the only course was ultimately to expose what he had learned.

This came, of course, in the context of a growing anti-war movement at home and abroad and of the post-1968 revolutionary spirit of the times. But Sixties hippies and anti-war activists were one thing, and Ellsberg was another. Ellsberg was an insider. His voice carried a special conviction. A year or so after his initial discovery of the import of the Papers, Ellsberg tried to get them released on the Senate floor, preferably by Senator William Fulbright or George McGovern. When this failed he turned to the New York Times. This led eventually to the Supreme Court case, and to the Nixon effort to block and discredit Ellsberg. Ellsberg, who was on the brink of going to jail for many years, needed enormous courage through all this, and he not only marshaled that courage, but has gone on tirelessly using the moral capital he he earned at the time of the Pentagon papers to oppose illegal and immoral wars in the decades since.

In this documentary, Nixon White House tape excerpts are heard, Nixon with Kissinger especially, the most damning, foul, small-town mafioso voice of evil: "get the son-of-a-bitch!" Nixon cries. These voices are surprising, even now. We have heard such voices in other documentaries, but perhaps never as naked and crude as here.

Ellsberg and his Rand Corporation cohort Anthony Russo, who photocopied the Papers, were absolved by a judge in California who declared a mistrial because of administration misconduct in persecuting the two men. That was nearly forty years ago and Ellsberg, as late, great liberal-left American historian Howard Zinn declares here, has lived his Iife in keeping with the principles he followed in exposing the Pentagon Papers ever since. But only a few visuals in this film cover that life of anti-war activism.

Part of what may move us about him and what may make him important is that Ellsberg's is a conversion story. Elssberg was far inside the establishment in what he originally did, a researcher for the Pentagon and a man who worked for the ultra-right-wing West-Coast-based Rand Corporation. Thus his later-to-be wife of many years Patricia, an anti-war activist when they met, broke off their engagement after he went on a paid trip to Vietnam. On that trip, Ellsberg learned how the Vietcong operated by leading a military operation himself; he was a former Marine. He married another woman. But when he got his teenage son and ten-year-old daughter to help photocopy the Papers, she broke with him, and he married Patricia, after all.

The most powerful sequence is between Ellsberg today and a pacifist of those days among those whose willingness to go to jail to fight the war convinced Ellsberg to become willing to do the same. This man was a turning point in Ellsberg's life, and his voice breaks with emotion sitting with him today and remembering that.

What makes this story so powerful is that it's not only about a First Amendment battle that went to the top -- the resulting Supreme Court decision remains essential in protecting the press from outside pressure -- but about the total transformation of a man from a liberal establishment figure into a voice for independent activism. And the information Ellsberg brought out is a magnifying glass through which to view the post-9/11 world and American hubris as characterized by Chalmers Johnson in his Blowback Trilogy. We might consider the inevitable possibility that there are other Pentagon Papers, millions of pages, about America's other wars and occupations, that similarly expose their futility, brutality, and cynicism.

The Most Dangerous Man in America
carries off the difficult task of sketching a portrait of a key figure of modern US political history without slighting either him or the complicated context in which he rose to fame.

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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