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Oscar-Nominated Bay Area Filmmakers Track Down America's ‘Most Dangerous Man’

Daniel Ellsberg was derided in 1971 by President Richard Nixon as a man who “gave aid and comfort to the enemy … putting himself above the President of the United States, above Congress, above our whole system of government” by revealing a secret Pentagon study of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. His remarkable story arrives at the Red Vic this week in Rick Goldsmith and Judith Ehrlich’s Oscar-nominated documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.

That Goldsmith, who previously produced and directed another Oscar-nominated documentary – Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press (1996), also featuring Ellsberg – wound up collaborating with Ehrlich, who grew up in Napa and teaches documentary film at Berkeley City College, is the result of a fortuitous coincidence.

Inspired in part by Ellsberg’s 2002 book, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, Ehrlich had been planning a movie about the onetime Cold Warrior turned outspoken pacifist but realized she didn’t want to make it alone. So she began roaming the hallways of the Saul Zaentz Media Center in Berkeley, searching for a prospective partner.

“We’d been working down the hall from one another, and we knew about each other but we’d never worked together,” she says of Goldsmith. “There are 40 documentary filmmakers on that floor, and I randomly walked into Rick’s office to see if he had any interest. He pulled out a huge file on Ellsberg.”

Goldsmith, who has lived and worked in the Bay Area since 1975, was already taken by the story of Ellsberg, now 78, who lives in Northern California and remains an activist to this day. But he and Ehrlich needed Ellsberg’s cooperation to tell it.

“There were three other people talking to him about a movie, and it took a lot of arm-twisting to get him on board,” she says. “I think it was because we have a lot of mutual friends who vouched for us. I was a peace activist for many years, and I think that convinced him that we would get at the story of great conscience that’s at the heart of the film.”

“This is a story about serious business – war and peace, social justice,” adds Goldsmith. “It’s about a man taking a stand, sticking his neck out and doing what’s right in the face of incredible pressure. That was the story we needed to tell – not just the story of Dan, but the story of this amazing risk he took that affected the history of a nation.”

Although Goldsmith acknowledges that his concept of what Dangerous Man should be differed initially from Ehrlich’s, their joint decision to focus on Ellsberg was reached only after meticulous research into the Pentagon Papers incident and the roles of all its major players. After that, they set about tracking them down, to give a comprehensive overview of Ellsberg’s historic act of defiance.

“It was a matter of picking up the phone,” Goldsmith says. “We wanted to talk to people who were part of the story, not those who consider themselves experts on it now. You can do a documentary that way, talking to intellectuals who studied a situation after the fact, but that’s not what we wanted.”

“The only people who really resisted were his opponents,” adds Ehrlich. “We almost got [former Army general and Secretary of State] Alexander Haig, and by the end of the process, we were on a first-name basis with his secretary, but it didn’t work out. [Henry] Kissinger would never speak to us, and that surprised me a little – he seemed like the Nixon administration’s voice of reason in this situation. But I think most people wanted to tell their stories.”

Much of the anti-Ellsberg sentiment present in Dangerous Man comes directly from the movie’s wealth of archival footage, in which Nixon supporters suggest the outspoken policy adviser was guilty of nothing less than treason. Ehrlich laughs off the claim.

“Daniel was very cautious about what he revealed,” she says. “It turned out, most of what was in the Pentagon Papers was already in the public record, either in books that were available or Congressional records. It was not top-secret stuff. What Daniel really did was reveal how much secrecy there was about things that didn’t need to be secret.

“That’s what still resonates today, especially during the Bush administration – that things haven’t changed, and that we need the Daniel Ellsbergs of the world, in every generation, to keep the government honest. This wasn’t information that was being kept secret from the Vietnamese or the Russians. This was information being kept from Lyndon Johnson and the American people. And the American people deserved to know.”

The Most Dangerous Man in America will be playing at the Red Vic through Tuesday. It will be playing all week at the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.