F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 24, 2011)

24 06 2011

Documentaries often criticize institutions and expose corruption, garnering the genre as a whole a sort of muckraking infamy.  However, not all fit the stereotype.  Take, for example, “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers,” a Oscar nominated documentary that’s my pick for this week’s F.I.L.M.  The movie celebrates the First Amendment right to the freedom of speech against the backdrop of an infamous incident in American history, focusing on one man who made a stand for the rights of American citizens to be informed.

Daniel Ellsberg is not your average Pentagon worker during the Vietnam War.  After becoming gradually disillusioned with the country’s mission after seeing the war both from a combat and administrative perspective, he began working at a think tank called RAND.  However, he still contributed to a study covering the conduct of the war; the documents would later be classified top-secret and known as “The Pentagon Papers.”

Knowing that these papers would implicate the Johnson administration in deliberately lying to the American people about the Vietnam War, Ellsberg decided to make copies of the Pentagon Papers and leak them to the media.  To the fury of Nixon and his staff, excerpts were published in The New York Times in June 1971.  The fallout eventually led to a Supreme Court case, which upheld the right of the newspaper to publish classified material without government censure.

“The Most Dangerous Man in America” also provides a very interesting portrait of Ellsberg himself, showing us what psychological forces led this man to take such drastic action in order to inform the American citizens of what their government was really doing.  But the beauty of the documentary is in the questions that it raises: what is the role of the media in maintaining transparency of the government?  Of the citizens?  Do we have a right to know everything the government does?  These questions are especially relevant now with WikiLeaks and their publishing of American defense secrets.  While the movie gives you Ellsberg’s answers, it also lets you ponder your own response to these big ethical questions all while celebrating the liberty our Constitution so vigorously protects.

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