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San Francisco Chronicle

Ellsberg Documentary Attracts Wide Audience

Tamara Straus

Daniel Ellsberg is the subject of the Oscar-nominated film. (Photo: Mill Valley Film Festival)

On first impression, Judith Ehrlich and Rick
Goldsmith's "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the
Pentagon Papers
" is the kind of documentary that no Sarah Palin-loving
red stater would be caught dead seeing.

It is made by Berkeley lefties. It is a tribute to a man who leaked
7,000 pages of top-secret Vietnam War documents, revealing that our
highest public officials were liars and essentially murderers. Its
subtext is that we are awash in government deception again.

But the documentary - which follows Ellsberg's path from Harvard
wunderkind to Marine commander to White House and Defense Department
consultant to political pariah - has been embraced by old and young,
dove and hawk, earnest leftist and ardent right-winger as an inspiring
story of patriotism and moral courage. Even stranger, the film has
widely been described as entertaining.

Oscar nomination

Ehrlich and Goldsmith, who are preparing for the film's opening in
their hometown of Berkeley on Feb. 19, are both thrilled and exhausted
by its initial success. "The Most Dangerous Man" has been nominated for
an Academy Award for best feature documentary, and has received the
Special Jury Award at the International Documentary Film Festival
Amsterdam and Audience Awards at the Mill Valley and Palm Springs
International Film Festivals. It will be seen around the globe this
year, at festivals, in theaters and on TV.

Yet the filmmakers say they feel especially rewarded by positive
reactions from young Americans. "They're very, very savvy, and
immediately get the parallels to today," said Goldsmith. "They get as
much as older audiences, maybe more so, that this isn't a film about
the past. This is a film about the present."

Ehrlich, who recently showed the film to 1,000 students from the
Palm Springs, Fla., area, said, "One hundred hands went up after the
screening. They said, 'How can I be a better citizen?' 'How can I
change this country?' "

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are not directly addressed in the
film, but Ehrlich and Goldstein say the parallels to Vietnam were the
main reason they both jumped into the project. They are also tremendous
fans of Ellsberg, becoming charged with emotion when they talk about
the personal risks he took 40 years ago and his work since to support
whistle-blowers and anti-war activists.

"What has struck me about his character is that he doesn't give
himself a break for not doing more," said Goldsmith, noting that
Ellsberg has been arrested 79 times for acts of civil disobedience. "I
think he's so personally engaged in trying to do all he can to stop
injustices and wars that he'll never rest."

Ehrlich and Goldsmith were among a handful of award-winning
documentary filmmakers who wanted to make a movie based on Ellsberg's
2002 memoir "Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers."
Errol Morris was first in line, but when he opted out the two started
courting Ellsberg.

"Dan had been an adviser on my film about World War II
conscientious objectors and on Rick's film about (journalist George)
Seldes," said Ehrlich. "He knew our work, so he decided we would give
him a fair shake."

Editorial control

Among the inevitable criticisms of Ehrlich and Goldsmith's film is
that Ellsberg is the main subject, star and narrator. In other words,
it's as if Ellsberg hired the two to make the movie. But the filmmakers
are quick to defend their choices and to point out that although
Ellsberg was allowed to have input, they wrote the script, included 20
other people in the film and exercised full editorial control.

"For the story, we had to have someone who was on the inside,
someone who was in the halls of power," said Goldsmith. "Dan was next
to McNamara. He was next to Johnson. He was attacked by Nixon. He was
in the middle, so I don't think it's inappropriate to have him tell a
lot of the story."

Ehrlich also feels that if Ellsberg were sidelined, the movie would
not tell a universal story of personal transformation - about "an
individual who had this tremendous change of heart and found his
conscience and did something that went against everything he was
trained to do." Plus, she said, "Dan is an amazing narrator - good as
any actor I have ever worked with, if not better."

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers: Co-produced and co-directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith. Opens Feb. 19 in San Francisco and Berkeley.

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