Documentary as grown up genre – THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA

Isn’t it great when a film surpasses your expectations, and in fact makes you think more about the world, and about filmmaking itself? I went to see the new documentary THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA: DANIEL ELLSBERG AND THE PENTAGON PAPERS (Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith) and it’s a full blown, knock out blockbuster. Documentary so often suffers from the bastard stepchild image, the geeked out brainiac who won’t shut up about human suffering. Yes, yes, we need those films too – but when I walk out of a doc saying, “WOW! That was a political thriller right up there with ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN,” well, then I’m glad to see the bastard child growing up into a big bad contender – just as engaging, just as nail-biting, just as tear-inducing, as something that tens of millions of dollars made.

DANGEROUS is narrated by Ellsberg himself, and opens with his “crime,” sneaking thousands and thousands of top secret Pentagon documents out of his workplace and eventually to The New York Times, and then to other papers around the nation, forever changing the relationship of the American press to American government. (It’s that dramatic of a plot point, and it’s actually true!) Brilliantly structured, the film opens with a reenacted image of the documents going out the door and then weaves from there, utilizing Ellsberg’s deep, dramatic voice as a primary tool. The man is intense — he’s a real storyteller, framing his own life in terms of dramatic turning points — what more could any filmmaker ask for?

Some other engaging methodologies: mining the crazy, can’t-write-that details – such as, what it really took to photocopy the 7,000 page study of the Vietnam War’s failings. Well, it took months, and Ellsberg put his children to work at the Xerox machine. Other narrative strands include Ellsberg’s personal history with Cold War ideology (he was basically a hard-liner), how that turned, and how connecting with the love of his life Patricia intersected with his political transformation. Those three strands – papers, ideology, love – weave together beautifully, prompting the rapid pulse, the moral conundrum, the romance that all storytellers strive to deliver. And it’s educational! It’s out on DVD on July 20 (queue it up) or catch it if you can at a film festival or indie theatre around the nation. Schedule here, and the trailer: