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.
Whatever the downfalls or triumphs of these films, I think the reverberations that resound through the last several decades to the present day give these pieces about these brave military intellectuals an even more substantive heft than they already have. Their object lessons about an asleep-at-the-wheel citizenry and the ramifications of mass lethargy and passivity, are dazzlingly clear.
In Ehrlich and Goldsmith’s case, their film’s artifice is in its presentation of Ellsberg’s story, in the mood and tempo of the cat-and-mouse nature of a true crime thriller, setting forth the rapid unraveling of a whole nation’s most cherished institutions. Even the dopey, child-like animation that is used to describe the “heist” as it happened, is fitting in its portrayal of the absolute absurdity of a man in his office late at night photocopying 7000 pages of incriminating evidence – his teenage kids in the room with him helping him get through this Herculean task, one manning the copy machine, the other cutting off the TOP SECRET stamps on the top and bottom of every single page with a pair of scissors like a runaway school art project. These days, of course, the copies could be sent by a push of a button on a computer keyboard.
The research and presentation of archival material in this documentary is absolutely superb, most especially the recordings of an obviously deranged and unhinged Richard Nixon, whose personal vendetta against Ellsberg was his ultimate undoing. Nixon said to Attorney General John Mitchell in June 1971, the day after Ellsberg surrendered to federal officials in Boston: “Just because some guy’s going to be a martyr, we can’t be in a position of allowing the fellow to get away with this kind of wholesale thievery, otherwise it’s going to happen all over the government. I just say we’ve got to keep our eye on the main ball. The main ball is Ellsberg. We’ve got to get this son-of-a-bitch.” It turns out that it was not really the Watergate Hotel break-in that broke everything open in terms of exposing the Nixon administration’s many crimes, but the discovery that Ellsberg had been recorded on illegal wiretaps for two years. In May 1973, Tony Russo and Daniel Ellsberg’s trial was dismissed by the judge, due to the discovery of massive government misconduct and all charges, including theft and conspiracy, against the two men were dropped. Nixon again (to Alexander Haig and HR Haldeman): “Son-of-a-bitchin’ thief is made a national hero and is gonna get off on a mistrial. The New York Times gets a Pulitzer Prize for stealing documents. They are trying to get at us with thieves. What in the name of God have we come to?”
With exceedingly well-crafted and intelligent interviews, deft, expertly-paced editing by Michael Chandler, Lawrence Lerew and Goldsmith, and a tightly written script by Lerew, Goldsmith, Ehrlich and Chandler, The Most Dangerous Man in America should be required viewing for every citizen in the US. Despite Jabłoński’s potential access to his subject, a much more substantive and interesting film could have been made, if the filmmaker, ensconced in his own cat-and-mouse game, had been absent from in front of the camera. The attempt at his own kind of espionage falls flat, and only serves to distance us further from Kukliński’s important and brave voice, unreachable now except through more responsible storytellers.
© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).