The case of Daniel Ellsberg and the ‘Pentagon Papers’ is re-visited in a fascinating documentary by Rick Goldsmith and Judith Ehrlich. It is not surprising that their film, The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers was a 2010 Academy Award nominee.
One of many issues prompting this interview with filmmaker Rick Goldsmith is my interest in the role American law played in the publication of the Pentagon Papers and if new laws stemming from these proceedings seem to be working in our current, war-infested society.
Defense Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg was privy to extensive records pertaining to the history, strategies and planning of the war in Vietnam. His role was of a legal nature. A highly competent and experienced employee, Ellsberg was obviously bound by a contract that involved confidentiality clauses. This agreement was breached when he opted to copy the papers and give them to the New York Times for publication.
To further complicate matters, Nixon was beyond paranoid regarding the release of classified information that he believed undermined the Vietnam War effort. He clearly wanted Ellsberg punished even though the Pentagon Papers concerned presidential administrations prior to his own. Nixon ordered U.S. Attorney General, John Mitchell to quell the press, citing violations of the 1917 Espionage Act. The fact that Nixon detested Ellsberg, coupled with the New York Times’ firm hold of First Amendment rights and growing disenchantment with the war, are the meat of The Most Dangerous Man in America.
The following conversation touches upon these and other issues relating to our current legal, political and social status – as global citizens with a conscience.
Film International (FI): Tell us about yourself Rick – how you got into filmmaking and the types of subjects that interest you.
Rick Goldsmith (RG): I was a budding architect at Rhode Island School of Design, then a mental health worker, a peer counselor at the Berkeley Free Clinic and a community agency fiscal administrator. At a certain point, I found myself just filling out forms and keeping records. I knew I had creativity inside of me, and I was concerned with social issues and the world around me. Filmmaking appealed to me as, perhaps, a way to find my voice and contribute to society in a more dynamic way.
FI: What is it about documentary filmmaking that appeals to you?
RG: To search for, to find, to identify the essence of an event or a person or persons is exciting and stimulating. Making real life come alive on the screen and touching people is just a very compelling experience for me.
FI: What did this particular Oscar nomination mean to you?
RG: It’s wonderful of course, but the most important thing is that the nomination raises the visibility and reach of the film.
FI: How did the collaboration between you and Judith Ehrlich come about and what was it like working on this project? Were there any major disagreements along the way?
RG: We were casual acquaintances at the Saul Zaentz Media Center in Berkeley, affectionately known as the Fantasy Building (as in Zaentz’s Fantasy Records and then Fantasy Films), where a whole community of independent media-artists worked. Shortly after I read Ellsberg’s Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papersin 2002, I’d approached him with an outline for a film, which even then I titled ‘The Most Dangerous Man in America’. but he didn’t reply to my request and I didn’t follow up. A couple of years later, Judy came to me one day and said, ‘What do you think about doing a film on Daniel Ellsberg?’ So together we resurrected the project, and this time Ellsberg responded. We took it from there.
Even though the general idea was the same for both of us – a story about the transformation of a Cold Warrior into a whistleblower and activist through a dramatic act that had a profound effect on America – we came from different approaches to filmmaking and had very different ideas on what the film should be. As the project evolved, there were major disagreements every step of the way, among them: How much do we focus only on Dan, how important is it to bring in many other voices? Do we stay with only the Pentagon Papers part of the story or focus on Ellsberg the activist today? Do we have a third-person narrator to keep some journalistic distance or do we use Dan as narrator? Do we use re-creations to tell a substantial part of the story, a la Man on Wire, or use them more sparingly, sticking to our main themes of secrecy, government lies and truth-telling?
On the one hand, we were a mis-matched partnership because we had such different approaches to filmmaking and to our work in general. On the other hand, neither one of us could get away with anything that was just ‘pretty good’, because everything we did had to pass muster with our fellow co-director and co-producer. In other words, there was a way in which the tension between us set the bar of excellence very high, and we either reached that bar (in any given scene, or to overcome any given disagreement) or we went back to the drawing board. Also, the further we got into the project, the more we brought in and relied on other creative people – most importantly, editors Lawrence Lerew and Michael Chandler – to add their input – which immensely improved our focus and storytelling!
FI: Why did you choose to revisit the Pentagon Papers case at this time, almost forty years later? Were you hoping to educate, incite or something else?
RG: We started the project in late 2004. We were in the middle of two wars, at least one of which we’d been lied into. There was great sentiment against the wars throughout the country, but the Congress and the people seemed either unwilling or unable to stop them. The story of Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, and the themes of government deception and secrecy, and, conversely, truth-telling and activism and risk and conscience, had so much resonance with what the country was going through then and is still going through.
FI: How personal was this project?
RG: For me, (it was) very personal! When we opened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, 2009 (Sept. 11, in fact), I found myself talking to an interviewer and revealing an incident I hadn’t thought about for years – I was working in a mental hospital in 1975, and blew the whistle on a case where a 17-year-old girl was being given shock treatment against her will, in direct violation of California law. My whistle blowing got me fired instantly, but it also stopped the shock treatment, at least temporarily. And I wondered, I still wonder, if Ellsberg’s whistle-blowing had had an effect on me, had given me the courage to take that risk for what I knew was the right thing to do. It most probably had. We all face these crises of conscience, whether at work, or with friends or family, or in the political arena. In my heart, I know it was the wrestling with conscience that drew me to this film at least as much as the broader political themes.
FI: Wow, that is something! In many ways, the film feels biased toward Dr. Ellsberg, not so much by your chosen focus, but the way the film is shot and edited. For example the strongly angled shot of the White House toppling and blurring, etc. Can you comment?
RG: I’m not sure the film is ‘biased towards Dr. Ellsberg’ any more than a film on Civil Rights activists is biased towards them, or Schindler’s List is biased against the Nazis, or towards Schindler. If the central question of the film had been ‘Did Ellsberg do the right thing, or was he a traitor?’ then I might agree with you. But the central questions in our film (as in the two examples I cite above) have to do with: What do you do when confronted with a great wrong, and you can either go along to get along, or you can risk your freedom or your life to stop the wrong?
FI: Can you speak about the comical (reaction) cuts of colorful, taped-commentary by Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, jr., etc.
RG: I think all the creative minds involved in our film knew instinctively that the Nixon tapes, as shocking and disturbing as they are, coming from the once-leader of the ‘free world’. would provoke laughter. Nixon, in private, had a great delivery, and the timing of a seasoned comic. We could have used twice as much material from the Nixon tapes – we had to reign ourselves in.
FI: Do you think Kissinger was a glorified babysitter for the over-reactive, often dangerous, Richard Nixon?
RG: No, I think that Kissinger gets, unfortunately, a free ride from us – he sounds like the voice of reason next to Nixon, in the tapes we chose. Our relatively sympathetic portrayal of Kissinger was not by design, but because Nixon was our antagonist, and it just sort of fell out that way. Kissinger has much to answer for, for crimes against humanity. You just don’t see that in our film.
FI: That’s so true! In many ways, Dr. Ellsberg reminds me of Coleridge’s guilty, Ancient Mariner, retelling his tale time and again, as if it happened yesterday. Do you believe he blew the whistle (and continues to do so) for cathartic reasons or for the public good?
RG: I have absolutely no question in my mind about this. I first interviewed Ellsberg in 1992 for my film Tell the Truth and Run, on the muckraking journalist George Seldes, whom Ellsberg read and revered when he was a student at Harvard in 1950. Ellsberg, as I saw when I first interviewed him, and as we see in this film, felt deeply about his own culpability for what he did during the Vietnam War. That is very apparent. But taking responsibility for his actions is different than the implication that he had a personal need to purge himself. He brought to Congress and then leaked to the press the Pentagon Papers for political reasons, for ‘the public good’ if you will – because he thought it might have a chance to help stop the war. He was willing to take that chance, because so many lives were at stake, even if it landed him in prison for the rest of his life. I think it was the same impulse as the draft resistors we see in the film, who felt it was important to take a stand, and not sit idly by while the US government was killing people, committing mass murder, in our name.
FI: There is only one segment where we hear Dr. Ellsberg questioned, and this pertains to his piano playing. Was your true goal to create personal portraits of Ellsberg and others? For me, these human complexities are the most interesting.
RG: We knew about the car accident and, in general terms, how it had affected Dan. Judy knew exactly where she was going when she delicately questioned Dan more about his mother. We questioned Dan on many personal issues – such as his feelings about loyalty or betrayal of friends and co-workers, and his relationships with not only his father but his son, whom he asked to help him Xerox the McNamara study when his son was only 13 – because personal motivation is what drives a film. When we questioned others about Dan, we tried to get as personal as possible, as well. Howard Zinn, Thomas Schelling, Tom Oliphant, Janaki Tschannerl, Randy Kehler, Hedrick Smith, and, of course, Patricia and Robert Ellsberg, all offer revealing personal insights into Ellsberg’s character. That’s one of the things that makes this film – as it would in any biographical piece of work – compelling.
FI: Do you think Dr. Ellsberg was disloyal and treasonous and if so, to whom?
RG: Our intention was not to answer the question, but to have the audience consider it, and possibly wrestle with it in their own minds. So do you, the viewer, believe he was disloyal and/or treasonous?
FI: Do you believe Dr. Ellsberg was a necessary pawn of Robert McNamara?
RG: Our coverage of the early part of Ellsberg’s career, and especially his last scene with McNamara – where he has just heard from the Secretary (of Defense) that he, McNamara, feels the war is going badly and then moments later tells a bank of reporters that things couldn’t be better – gives a glimpse into the bureaucracy of a war machine. It complements the portrait of McNamara himself seen in The Fog of War. These men and women (mostly men) were not pawns – they were willing participants, as Ellsberg makes clear later in the film. We wrap up that motif in a final clip of Ellsberg from the 1971 Cronkite interview towards the end of the film in which Ellsberg says, in effect, ‘many people in government made their careers by learning to keep their mouths shut. I was one of them.’ He did, of course, make his career by keeping his mouth shut, but he made his name by refusing, in the end, to keep the secrets and the lies hidden from the public.
FI: Why do you think Robert McNamara created the study that became known as the Pentagon Papers? Clearly his boss, Lyndon Johnson didn’t initiate or even know of its existence.
RG: We answer that in the film. By 1967, McNamara had come to have grave doubts about the war, and clashed with LBJ behind closed doors – that is public record – wanting to pursue a diplomatic solution rather than continue a failed military approach. If we believe the account of Mort Halperin, head of the study, McNamara ordered the study to better understand how we’d gotten into such a mess so we could learn lessons from it.
The ironic part of that is that we did learn lessons from the study, but only because of Ellsberg’s leak, and also his tireless public speaking about the study, in which he clarified what the lessons of the study were, i.e. that four Presidents escalated the war – mostly to save face – knowing it was unwinnable, and lied to the public about it at every turn. But without Ellsberg’s act, that massive study, 7,000 pages, 47 volumes, written by more than 40 contributors, would have ended up in the trash. Because by the time it was finished, in 1968, McNamara was gone, the new Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford had no interest in it, nor, by 1969, did anyone in the Nixon administration – Kissinger, or Melvin Laird, Nixon’s Secretary of Defense.
FI: Did Nixon know about the study prior to its leak?
RG: That is unclear, but we know that Kissinger knew about it, because he consulted with Ellsberg about Vietnam in 1969 and 1970 (i.e. before the 1971 leak) and Ellsberg discussed the study with him, and urged him to read it. Given that, it is hard to believe that both Laird and Nixon did not know about it. But they certainly didn’t learn lessons from it.
FI: Do you believe all governmental (secret) material should be declassified?
RG: You can’t be an absolutist about this. The fact is, most experts of all political stripes agree that way too much material is classified on its merits. The central issue concerning the Pentagon Papers was that this was material the public and Congress needed to know if we were going to, as a democracy, makes informed decisions about the war. That it was un-patriotic to keep it from the public, not un-patriotic to reveal it.
FI: The Ellsberg court-hearings exposed flaws in our national security system and the political nature of federal prosecutions. Do you believe these defects have been adequately reformed?
RG: The First Amendment battle portrayed in our film was, at its core, a debate between ‘national security’ and ‘the people’s right to know’. The Supreme Court, then (in 1971), said that the government had better be able to prove national security is at risk before it tries to pre-censor the press – even during wartime. That is a great court decision, because it cuts through all the bullshit duplicity, and lies that those in power rely on to keep a people subjugated and its elected representatives out of the decision-making process that is, and should be, the heart of our democracy.
The cries of ‘national security’ are dominant today. People have been made to fear that if our leaders ‘fall asleep at the wheel’ (as Ellsberg says in our film, in another context) we will be physically in danger, at the mercy of our enemies. Now, in 2010, when the United States, for the first time in history, is the lone super-power in the world! This is standing reality on its head! When the fascist powers were on the march in the late 1930s and early 1940s, national security for the United States was a legitimate issue. It is not anymore, not in a military sense, although much of the country probably feels it is.
FI: Yes, I still hear rumblings from certain people… In your film you show that
Senator Fulbright and other officials against the war did nothing, upon reading the Pentagon Papers. Do you believe most people ignore the truth out of fear and will not act even if it is in their better interest to do so?
RG: Ellsberg likes to quote former Senator Mike Gravel, who did take a risk (as you see in our film) and read the Pentagon Papers into the Senate record in June, 1971, before the Supreme Court had ruled on whether the newspapers could continue to publish them. ‘Mike’, Ellsberg asked him recently (since our film came out), ‘Do you think Congress today is extraordinarily cowardly?’ ‘No’. says Gravel, ‘Ordinarily cowardly. They were just as cowardly in my day.’
FI: Do you think ‘60s-style protests disappeared with the draft and do you think the draft should return?
RG: I think the ‘people were in the streets because of the draft’ argument is overly simplistic. Many things contributed to the mass of protests and activism against the Vietnam War, and I think the biggest reason was that all of us baby-boomers grew up during the Civil Rights movement, where masses of people, and especially young people, risked their very lives to change America, and change it they did. College students sat in on lunch counters, high school kids marched the streets in Birmingham, practically begging to be arrested, young people, both black and white, risked physical violence and death to help old black women register to vote in the harshest atmosphere of hatred you could imagine. So the rest of us saw what could be done, and what should be done in the face of injustice, and it inspired us, to do the right thing. And it gave us hope that we the people could turn America around.
I do think that our current wars are hidden, in part, because we don’t have a draft, and because the people who serve in the military are from a segment of the population that is invisible to many of the rest of us. And that does help the wars continue with relatively little protest. But I don’t think the draft should be re-instated, because that will only make it easier for our government to wage wars and increase troop deployments, which I see as a bad thing.
What I would like to see (and this goes back to my previous film, Everyday Heroes, which was about AmeriCorps) is mandatory national service for all people of a certain age – either military or civilian. (I would hope most people would choose civilian.) I think that – institutionalizing the notion that we all have a responsibility to sacrifice some of our comforts and careerism and to serve our country, our fellow human beings – that would be fantastic on so many levels.
FI: Have we relapsed into a pre-Ellsberg era in regard to Iraq and Afghanistan?
RG: We certainly have not learned the lessons of Vietnam, of the abuse of power of the Nixon Administration, or of the content of the Pentagon Papers. Even with a thoughtful, intelligent and sometimes progressive president, we, as a country, seem to be, in Afghanistan particularly, condemned to repeating the mistakes of the past. We’ve been playing follow the leader too long. Isn’t it time we abandon militarism as a foreign policy?
FI: Do you believe the greatest threats to the USA are external (as from the Muslim world, China, etc.) or within, as for ex., medical care and general complacency?
RG: 9-11 didn’t change America. Our reaction to 9-11 changed America. Led by the Bush Administration, we drew exactly the wrong lessons from the attack. Terrorism from a few hundred Al Qaeda members or a few thousand Muslim extremists is no threat to us, not really. I don’t mean that Islamic Fundamentalism is harmless, or that it is not a serious problem. It is. All religious-fundamentalism is a serious problem to society! But their numbers and their might do not have the ability to really affect America in any substantial way. (After all), more Americans are killed by drunk-drivers in a day, than by Islamic Fundamentalists (and) so-called ‘terrorists’. in a year! More (Americans) are killed by cigarettes, and lack of health care – by hunger, by despair, by ignorance, and by neglect!
The damage done to our society by the fear-mongering, the overdone emphasis on ‘homeland security ‘. by the senseless destructive resources we are putting into two wars, by the money and resources and creative energy we are taking away from addressing social problems, poverty, poor education, health care, and on and on – that is what is destroying our country and our people, and continues to be the biggest threat to our survival, and our future.
FI: Do you think that the Patriot Act reflects the current state of our civil liberties?
RG: The Patriot Act is misguided on every level. It basically says that America and Americans need to fear every possible ‘nasty’ person out there, and that personal liberty, freedom of speech and expression and association – the heart of our Bill of Rights – mean nothing anymore. That is not an America I want my children to grow up in.
FI: Hmm, so have we really regressed or progressed since the Pentagon Papers case and where does the real power in America lie?
RG: Daniel Ellsberg, when he had the soapbox for two years, 1971-73, during the time he was awaiting trial and then on trial, and then, briefly, after the trial was over, was fond of pointing out to audiences that our democracy could only work with the vibrant and active participation of five branches, all five fingers on a hand, if you will, working in opposition but together: the executive, the Congress, the courts, the press and the people. The executive is as strong as ever. The Congress has been bought and sold many times over. The courts have become conservative. The press, ‘on bended knee’, has become meek, ethically and morally (and now financially) bankrupt. And the people – well, many are still active and defiant, and young people, as ever, are constantly looking for ways to make a difference. But too many live lives of quiet desperation, or feel defeated, or look around at the enormity of the challenges and ask themselves, ‘why bother?’ Maybe, in some small way, our film can help answer that question.
FI: Can you speak about your next project?
RG: I do not have one yet. [I am still] too consumed with this film!
Amy R. Handler is a filmmaker, writer and critic.