Peter Galvin talks to SFF guest, filmmaker Judith Ehrlich about a powerful new film.
10 Jun 2010 - 3:40 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:08 PM

In 1971, Richard Nixon's White House was in turmoil. The President had promised the country that he would resolve the war in Vietnam. The US military commitment to the conflict in South East Asia was unpopular and many of the men and women in Nixon's own administration held a secret belief that the war was both illegal and un-winnable. Still, they did nothing about their own convictions.

Then Daniel Ellsberg, a professional intellectual and analyst who worked for the prestigious think tank Rand Corp as well the Pentagon, leaked the secret history of the Vietnam War to the press. It was later revealed that Ellsberg, no peace protester, but a long term, committed and high ranking public servant, had spent years photocopying the documents that made up the 7000 page dossier that the New York Times dubbed, 'The Pentagon Papers'.

What the public saw in those pages was, according to an Oscar nominated documentary from directors Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, a frightening indictment of not only Nixon's administration but a succession of Presidencies stretching back decades.

“Five presidents have been lying about the war in Vietnam and it was clear nobody had wanted to lose it,” Ehrlich tells SBS. “What Dan Ellsberg revealed was the US government's inability to accept responsibility. They didn't have a strategy in Vietnam that really represented the good of the government and the people.” She says that, despite all the Cold War rhetoric about 'stopping Communism' or offering 'aid' to the South Vietnamese, there was never any truly meaningful and coherent policy. The papers published throughout the US media in 1971 explained that the US government paid for France's war in Indo China; its exit from the region led directly to US military involvement. “Dan Ellsberg is a master analyst,” she says, “and to this day he can't really offer a sound reason as to why the US was in Vietnam or way they stayed so long.”

Ehrlich says that since Ellsberg was a security specialist, he had been careful with the documents; he did not reveal state secrets that would create a direct danger to the US. Nixon was enraged. Ellsberg was committed to trial, where if convicted, he faced a life sentence in gaol. Still, in some quarters he was branded a hero and the anti-Vietnam movement gathered momentum behind the Pentagon Papers. Nixon's men broke into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office in an effort to discredit him. After Nixon attempted to 'bribe' the trial judge with a prestigious appointment, as director of the FBI, the case against Ellsberg was dismissed. Nixon, then, committed to an expensive 'plumbing' operation where White House operatives, using counter-intelligence techniques such as wire taps and breaks-ins, set out to plug any further 'Ellsberg'- type leaks. This, says Ehrlich, eventually led to the Watergate break-in (where the White House plumbers burgled Democratic HQ) and Nixon's downfall.

Universally acclaimed, rich and deep, Ehrlich and Goldsmith's film, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers, is an unapologetic testimony to Ellsberg's moral fortitude. “I did not want the film to be journalistic,” says Ehrlich, who was herself a part of the movement that protested US involvement in Vietnam in the '70s. “I think we made no bones of the fact that what Dan did was a really courageous thing.” Instead, the tone is intimate and emotionally involved; Ellsberg's second marriage to Pat, a committed anti-war activist is depicted as a love story, a raft of hope and decency in a world of sinister compromise.

The film is, in effect, a kind of 'movie-memoir', with Ellsberg himself as narrator, his gentle, stoic tones a calm and sane counterpoint to the twisted political shenanigans the movie portrays. “I don't think what Dan did was traitorous, I think he was a patriot.”

Four years in the making, the film uses archival material, a few heavily stylised re-enactments and new interview material (culled from 110 hours of footage), with many key players including Nixon White House men, John Dean and Bud Krogh. Ehrlich says the filmmakers' unabashed admiration for Ellsberg meant that the man's critics were reluctant to appear. “Nobody wanted to look like a sore loser.” But even if the film is considered partisan, Ehrlich says it is a reasoned, articulate argument in favour of moral duty over duty to a role or a job. “You know at one point Dan says that thousands knew what he knew… and did nothing.” Is this why Ellsberg was so roundly condemned amongst peers and high players right across the political spectrum? “Well, Dan was for a lot of people a 'rat', a 'snitch'.”

Only a few months ago Ellsberg went to visit, un-announced, his old boss at Rand. “But he refused to see Dan,” says Ehrlich, “the wounds run deep.” Ehrlich concedes that much of the hostility directed at Ellsberg derives from the common suspicion that many hold against 'whistleblowers; that their actions derive from a desire to settle personal scores or else stem from a self-absorbed ego, more than principle. “It is true that Dan's critics have claimed that he did it to achieve fame and he was feted by the Beatles and Hugh Hefner.”

But Ehrlich says that Ellsberg's exposure of the US government's role in Vietnam cost him his profession. Ellsberg has never had another high-ranking job since 1971: “No one, no corporation will hire him,” she says.

More than the story of a muck raking insider, The Most Dangerous Man in America is a complex portrait of a complicated man (Ellsberg likes the film because it makes him seem interesting, says Ehrlich, when his own estimation of his personality is that he is terminal bore!). In the end Ellsberg emerges as an elusive character but his actions – and the tortured history that informs them both personal and political – throws up a lot of timely questions about duty and ethics, and the values and ideals that an open and democratic government is supposed to represent. “If the State is traitorous does that make the traitor a patriot?” asks Ehrlich. Part of the film's project was to in some way approximate the corrosive mindset of the Nixon White House: “Sure, Watergate and so on was about covering up a strategy of 'dirty tricks' against political opponents, but what they were doing had absolutely nothing to do with the good of the country... it was really about power.”

Part of what the movie is about is the life force that seems to enrich and motivate Ellsberg and Pat; no matter what scars they have, no matter what damage to their reputation[s] there's a sense of hope in their story that transcends politics. There's a scene in the film where the pair are arrested at a recent peace rally in the US; Pat and Dan Ellsberg are seen being gently helped up into the back of a police paddy wagon by some very polite officers, in footage shot by Ehrlich and the documentary crew. After their release Ehrlich, worried about their welfare, went to see the pair: “They were laughing, very jolly because the cop had told them: 'It was a real privilege to arrest you.' ”

The Most Dangerous Man in America screens at the State on Thursday 10 June and Event Cinemas on Monday 14 June.
Judith Ehrlich will present the Ian MacPherson Memorial Lecture at the State Theatre on Friday 11 June at 3.30pm.