POV: What drew you to the subject of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers and how did you come to make this film?
Rick Goldsmith: Part of the answer to that question — the political part of the answer — is that we are currently in the middle of two wars, and lies led us into these wars. The parallels between the Pentagon Papers and the Vietnam War and the wars we’re in today are unmistakable. The other part of the answer is that the character of Daniel Ellsberg is a dramatist’s dream. He was a protagonist who made a 180-degree flip and acted according to his conscience on the biggest issues of our time. His arc, his transformation and the stage this is all set on — which is the Vietnam War and Watergate — it’s a slam dunk of a subject.
Judith Ehrlich: The subject was something I was really aware of during the period when it was happening, and one day I realized that no one had made a film about Daniel Ellsberg. I thought, this is odd; has no one made this film? Daniel lives right near me, in the next town over. He’s very present in the antiwar movement, has been arrested 79 times since the days of the Pentagon Papers and is often on the news. We had mutual friends and I started talking to him about making a film. He had just finally come out with his autobiography, Secrets.
Up until then, Daniel didn’t really want a documentary made about himself. He wanted to tell the story. But after Secrets was published, Daniel was ready to start talking to potential documentary filmmakers. There were three other filmmakers interested at the time. I talked to Rick about the project, and he was interested as well. It took us six months to convince the Ellsbergs that we were the team to do it. It’s an amazing story, and we knew it would make a great documentary.
POV: Rick, you mentioned parallels between the Vietnam War and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Can you talk more about what was going on in the United States at the time that you two started making the film and why this film was so important to make?
Goldsmith: In late 2004 and early 2005, when we started making this film, the United States was engaged in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the case of the Iraq War, the American people had been lied to about why we were part of that war. While there were many people against the wars, we, as a country, seemed either unwilling or unable to stop them. Daniel Ellsberg was somebody who went out of his way to try to stop a war — that was the core of why he made the decision to leak the Pentagon Papers. So the parallels on that level were unmistakable.
I was 20 at the time that the Pentagon Papers were released, and I think that during that era, people believed change through our actions was possible. Many people did act to try to stop the war. Daniel Ellsberg’s act was a dramatic one, but there were tens of thousands of people from all walks of life involved in the antiwar movement. We weren’t relying on our government to change things; we had the sense that we could actually change things. That sense seems to have been lost in the 30 or 40 years since then. So I think the film has a lot to say to today’s audiences, especially young audiences, because I think young people today don’t grow up with the sense that what they do politically, organizationally or individually affects public policy and their communities. They don’t grow up with the sense that they can make a difference. And so we wanted to impart that sense — that you can make a difference — through this story. To me, that’s a reason to do a film.
POV: A big part of the story is obviously The New York Times deciding to print the Pentagon Papers and the fact that other newspapers followed its lead. If there were a situation similar to that of the Pentagon Papers today, do you think newspapers would react in the same way?
Goldsmith: We are often asked that question at our screenings, and there are a couple of answers. Today, you can put things on the Internet, which you couldn’t do back in the day. But I don’t think that’s really an adequate answer, because there are billions of things on the Internet, and you can’t focus the country on a political issue on the Internet in the same way that the press, when it’s really doing its job, can. In the early 1970s, the two major issues were the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. For me, that was a high point of journalism, because the press was focusing the attention of the country on issues that were very important.
Also, The New York Times didn’t just print the Pentagon Papers. They would have been indigestible that way, and people wouldn’t have been able to read them. The journalists helped interpret the papers. They helped people understand what the papers were about, what this leak was and who Daniel Ellsberg was. That was very important. As for today’s press, I don’t think it’s serving the American people as well as it should.
We live in a time when Pentagon Papers-type events don’t have the impact that the Pentagon Papers did in the 1970s. One recent example of that is the Eikenberry cables. Karl Eikenberry was a general and is the ambassador to Afghanistan. He had advised President Obama that to increase the troops in Afghanistan would be folly for a number of reasons. He sent that information to President Obama in a series of cables. Then, weeks later, President Obama decided to increase the troops in Afghanistan, and General Eikenberry said he supported it. Then, these Eikenberry cables came to light in The New York Times. However, the other newspapers didn’t pick them up.
The story was riveting reading, but it was gone in two days. I think there was something about the time and the political backdrop of the Pentagon Papers — there were so many people active, so many people involved in the antiwar movement, so many people on the heels of the civil rights movement who said, “If we get involved, we will change America.” And we don’t live in those times right now. My hope with this film is that in some small way, or maybe big way, the film can introduce the notion that people acting, by themselves or in concert with others, on big matters like war and peace, can actually affect change in our society. We live in an era when that’s not true. But I think the possibilities are still there. We still live in a democracy. In comparison with the other countries of the world, we still have very liberal freedom of expression and freedom of the press laws. I hope the kinds of things that happened during the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War can still happen. And I’m looking forward to the day when that happens on a grander scale or on a scale that matches that of those eras. And maybe that will be sooner than we think.
POV: You use different techniques, including animation and reenactments, in the film. Tell us more about your stylistic approach to the film.
Ehrlich: We attempted to make a really entertaining film, and I wanted to use the whole toolbox available to documentary filmmakers. We use animation, recreations and the film has a fabulous soundtrack. We tried to pull together all the elements in the final film.
Rick and I had different approaches to the film, and it took us time to sort that out. Rick wanted the film to be more journalistic, more objective. I wanted the film to be more from Ellsberg’s perspective, more personal. I think some of the most wonderful aspects of the film are actually things that it took us a long time to agree on as two different filmmakers. We actually pushed each other to a higher level, because we didn’t see things the same way, and we had to convince each other.
POV: Did you encounter any surprises during the making of the film?
Goldsmith: One of the biggest surprises, for me, was Dan Ellsberg himself. In some ways, he’s a larger than life figure. Some people describe him as arrogant; others say that he sucks the air from the room. We knew Ellsberg was going to be a big character, but what I didn’t foresee, and what I was pleasantly surprised to find out, was that he was so open to talking about his own evolution. I think that’s what makes him so interesting as a person and as a film character. Most people of his stature — those who are the best and brightest, who get into the highest positions in the government — are set in their ways; they’re about achieving certain goals. But Ellsberg was constantly reexamining his decision, and so he was able to transform, because he reexamined his support of the Vietnam War, and then, later, his stance of being passively against the war, and then, later, being actively against the war. All of his reexamination, his doubts, sometimes his sense of guilt and his decision-making process still come through in the interviews for the film, 35 to 40 years after the events happened.
POV: At one point in The Most Dangerous Man in America, Ellsberg talks about his decision to involve his children in the process of photocopying the Pentagon Papers. Did you agree with him that it was the right decision to involve his children?
Goldsmith: That’s a very good question. The fact that he put his children at risk doing something that he knew was likely against the law is huge. As he said, he didn’t know if the next time he saw his son it would be in prison. Do I agree with that? As a documentarian I’m going to beg off and not answer the question. But I do feel it works well in the film, because we can see that Dan wants his son to understand who he is and share who he is. He’s proud of what he’s doing, and he’s imparting that to his son. There was a lot of risk, and Dan’s son had to testify against his father before the grand jury. All of that is part of the contradiction of who Daniel Ellsberg is. As a filmmaker, I didn’t want to say whether he was right or wrong, whether he was a hero or a jerk. I just wanted to show that to the audience and let them digest it and draw their own conclusions.
Ehrlich: That’s a question we get a lot: Why did Daniel Ellsberg involve his children, and how did that affect his life and his children’s lives? I have always felt comfortable with his decision. Dan’s son Robert Ellsberg is very unusual and brilliant. When he was 13, he had already read Thoreau and Gandhi. He wasn’t your normal 13-year-old; he was ready for this task.
Dan’s son Robert doesn’t have any bad feelings about participating in the process. He does feel bad that he had to testify before a grand jury, and that his testimony led to other people being involved in the case. Although Dan’s decision may seem like a bad decision in retrospect, I think he did it for the right reasons. He did it to make his son understand what he was doing.
Robert is now the editor of Orbis Books. He is the biographer of Dorothy Day, a founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. Robert is a devout Catholic and a very principled and inspiring person himself. Mary, Dan’s daughter, does incredible work around the world on behalf of women who have suffered domestic violence. So, both of his kids have become activists and inspiring people in their own right. So, I don’t think the decision to involve them in the Pentagon Papers hurt them. It made them understand the kind of commitment their father had made.
POV: Ultimately, what are some of the most important themes in The Most Dangerous Man in America?
Ehrlich: One theme is the importance of the freedom of the press. This film portrays probably the most courageous moment in American press history. The New York Times was the first to publish these papers. Neil Sheehan and Hedrick Smith were the primary reporters on this case, and they were holed up in the Hilton Hotel, preparing documents for the public. The government came in and shut them down almost immediately. But then The Washington Post picked up the mantle and it started publishing them. Seventeen other newspapers also challenged the government and published the papers in spite of the possibility of being shut down. People working for those newspapers really did take a risk. They could have lost their institutions.
We don’t have the same kind of media today, so I think the film is very inspiring for journalism students. People always ask, “What would Daniel Ellsberg do today with these papers if he had to distribute them?” And his response is “I would scan them and put them on the Internet.” But would that have the same impact as a front page story in The New York Times? Probably not.
Another important theme is speaking truth to power. That one person, armed with a willingness to spend the rest of his life in prison and 7,000 pages of top secret documents in his safe, can make a huge difference is something that’s shown by the film. Can each of us make a difference in our own way? I think that’s what we hope people get out of this film. It’s really a film about the power of truth-telling. It’s also a film about war and peace, and about the possibility that the citizens of the United States should demand that their government turn the corner and see the value of nonviolence, see the possibility of stopping war and look really seriously at war-making before it commits.