Usa, 2009; Poland, 2009
Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers and Dariusz Jabłoński’s War Games and the Man Who Stopped Them both exhibited at the IDFA last autumn. Jabłoński’s was the opening night film of this most important international documentary festival, and Ehrlich and Goldsmith’s film went on to become a nominee for the Oscar for Best Feature Documentary. They are an interesting pairing for many reasons: both films tell the story of an “inside man” who revolted against his own government by disclosing lies and deceit (one to major news media, the other to the CIA) on a massive national and international scale. In the process, both men put their lives at risk and even involved their own children in their “crimes.” Ironically, one man’s tarnished nation becomes the other man’s refuge.
Admittedly, as an American born in the last century, the film about Daniel Ellsberg resonated on a personal emotional level in a way that director Jabłoński’s film did not. The subject matter was not the only reason this is so, for there are other mitigating circumstances as to why one film has an emotional resonance that the other does not. Yet, while watching both films, the Ellsberg one superbly crafted, the other one about Ryszard Kukliński less so due to silly cloak-and-dagger shenanigans on the part of the filmmaker, I kept thinking, and hoping, that there might be a Daniel Ellsberg figure (or several) that will soon blow the lid off the 9/11 “conspiracy,” the resultant Iraq invasion, and the Bush administration’s culpability in waging a war based on lies and deception. This war turned out to be a grand-scale swindle of the citizens of the United States, not to mention those of a country we have helped to destroy through the auspices of, once again, shoving a misunderstood notion of democracy down an unwitting nation’s throat. Not to mention the killing of so many innocent people in the process, on both sides of the line. A nation’s actions, waged for no valid reason except “empire,” are problematic. But what is even more scandalous is the rhetoric set forth for public consumption by national government and corporate media, and the concomitant complicity in the charade by each nation’s citizenry. History will not remember kindly.
The superficial story of The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, is of a man who in 1971 transformed himself from a leading Vietnam War strategist, dedicated Cold War warrior, and Washington insider holding many powerful cards, to a private citizen who decides to place himself squarely in the center of a maelstrom that exposed devastating national secrets. He acted as the catalyst (with the help of a few brave people including his second wife, and soul-mate, Patricia Marx, and fellow RAND Corporation colleague, Anthony Russo), that set things in irrevocable motion, including the resignation of a twice-elected US president, Richard Nixon. This series of events also saw profound changes in our understanding of “separation of powers”, and all because of one man’s actions. He was an individual who knew how things worked from the inside, enabling him to grasp and expose the powerful proof he needed to crack things open. The exact same thing could also be said, of course, for Kuklinski in his own circumstances and place and time. But what Ehrlich and Goldsmith can, and do, illustrate, since they have Ellsberg himself to narrate and tell his own story, along with a highly articulate Greek chorus of subjects who were involved, is the personal memory of the ideological and spiritual awakening of an individual stumbling through the labyrinths of the deepest parts of himself. The excruciating pain and effort this took, the personal sacrifices that had to be made, is this story’s real backbone.
Director Jablonski recreates the story of the famous Polish spy, Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski, who defected to the United States when martial law was imposed in Poland in 1981. The Colonel passed more than forty thousand strategic documents concerning the Warsaw Pact to the American CIA during the Cold War. Jabłoński has to try and tell his story without the subject present, since the man in question died on literally the very day they were to start shooting.. One feels a deep sense of remorse on behalf of the filmmaker who tried for a very long time to reach his subject and get permission to film his story with his participation. Instead, he finds Kuklinski’s bereft, wheelchair-bound widow who promptly asks Jablonkai to take her husband’s ashes to Washington, DC – and so begins a very absurd and odd journey. Kuklinki secretly served as one of the CIA’s most important spies behind the Iron Curtain (he and Ellsberg were in Vietnam at exactly the same time, remarkably enough) and was tried in Poland, found guilty and given the death sentence. Insidiously, his two sons died under mysterious circumstances as well. The film’s awkward structure left me feeling lost, trying desperately to figure out the important details of this man’s story and why he did what he did. The propensity of the filmmaker to constantly compare himself and his own life and parallel these details with the Colonel’s own circumstances was, in turns, annoying and infuriating. He just refused to get out of the way of this story. For me that was severely detrimental to the experience of getting closer to Kukliński the man, since the film already suffered from a lack of solid contextualization.
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