The Most Dangerous Man in America catapults us to 1971 where we find America in the grip of a familiar scenario: a dirty war based on lies. And Dr. Daniel Ellsberg, one of the nation’s leading war planners, has the documents to prove it. Armed with 7000 pages of Top Secret documents; he leaks the truth about the Vietnam War to The New York Times and risks life in prison to end the war he helped plan. It is a story that held the world in its grip, with daily headlines, the top story on the nightly news for weeks on end.
What makes a dedicated Cold Warrior throw away his high-level access, his career, his friends, and risk life in prison for a mere CHANCE at helping to end the war? The Daniel Ellsberg in the first part of the film is a brilliant, complex man wrestling with his conscience over his role in a war he sees first as a problem to be solved, then as a hopeless stalemate, finally as a crime to be stopped at any costs.
Ellsberg’s leak of the top-secret Pentagon Papers to The New York Times sets into motion an extraordinary series of events. The Nixon Administration first goes after the nation’s press, resulting in a First Amendment battle that, within two weeks, ends up in the Supreme Court. Ellsberg goes underground to avoid a nationwide FBI manhunt. When he emerges, he is hailed as a hero, accused of being a traitor, ostracized by friends, and finds himself on trial for his life.
But even while on trial, the charismatic Ellsberg grabs center stage. Ever-present on talk shows and press conferences, he reveals to the American public important truths about government secrecy and lies. Dubbed by Henry Kissinger as “the most dangerous man in America who must be stopped at all costs,” Ellsberg is targeted by President Nixon himself, who fears Ellsberg might leak some of Nixon’s own war plans. “Screw the courts,” says the President, “let’s try the son-of-a-bitch in the press.” But Nixon’s obsession with Ellsberg leads to the President’s downfall, and, by a series of events Ellsberg couldn’t have imagined, an end, finally, to the Vietnam War.
Our tale is told by Ellsberg — as narrator, in current interviews and riveting archival footage — and a cast of supporting characters who “lived” the Pentagon Papers episode including Ellsberg’s wife and son, “coconspirator” Tony Russo, historian/activist Howard Zinn, journalists Hedrick Smith and Max Frankel, attorneys Lenny Weinglass and James Goodale, Watergate principals Egil “Bud” Krogh and John Dean, and — in a rarely seen interview and his own secret White house tapes — President Nixon himself.
Our film speaks directly to the world today, as national security and the people’s right-to-know are in constant tension. It raises questions about civil courage, following conscience, taking risks, and speaking truth to power. It challenges people everywhere who are looking to better understand the world of power and who search their own hearts for ways to take a stand and make a difference.