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The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

Real-life political thriller set during the Vietnam era

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Ellsberg, the former Rand Corporation analyst who Xeroxed his way to fame, and to federal court, while trying to halt the Vietnam War, is the subject of Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's documentary. It's admittedly a hagiography -- Ellsberg even narrates -- but still a good story, a real-life political thriller intertwined with a morality exercise. 

While working as a military analyst with top-secret clearances, Ellsberg came across a 7,000-page report -- nicknamed the Pentagon Papers, for its source -- that he believed proved the Vietnam War had been pursued under false pretenses. In 1971, Ellsberg -- after enlisting his kids to help copy the entire document -- leaked it to the press, as a self-described act of conscience and civil disobedience.

For the older set, the film will be a trip down memory lane, a chance to catch up with some of the Vietnam era's colorful figures. (Richard Nixon, of all people, provides the film's few laughs, with his unexpurgated rants about various enemies of the state.) Younger viewers should be fascinated, and will note how the actions of a very few can alter history. Ellsberg may not have stopped the war, but there's a clear line between the Papers and the Watergate cover-up, which ultimately led to Nixon's resignation.

Many of the lessons of that era's war and the paranoid, secretive executive office it spawned remain relevant today. It's interesting to compare-and-contrast the Pentagon Papers drama with that of the equally scurrilous build-up to and execution of the Iraq war, as well as the less-heroic role today's media played.

Another easy grab for contemporary media-saturated viewers: It comes as a surprise to Ellsberg and his anti-war cohorts that the brazen, articulate TV-ready Ellsberg became a bigger story than what the Papers actually revealed. Today, we already know we prefer the entertainment aspects of a serious breach in government (the unveiling of Valerie Plame, the always quotable Dick Cheney) to the hard task of righting fundamental policies gone seriously awry. Starts Fri., March 5. Harris

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