U.S. history and human drama

Daniel Ellsberg speaks at a 1973 news conference. Behind him, wearing glasses, is his Pentagon Papers codefendant, Anthony Russo.

Dubbed "the most dangerous man in America" by then-Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, Daniel Ellsberg was responsible for the publication of the Pentagon Papers - more than 7,000 pages of top-secret documents that showed the Nixon administration (and the Johnson, Kennedy, Eisenhower, and Truman administrations before it) to be engaged in the deepest sort of deception concerning U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

In Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's Oscar-nominated documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America, Ellsberg recounts his own amazing cloak-and-dagger tale: how an ex-Marine, a military adviser, and government consultant connected to top officials in the White House and the Pentagon could no longer live with the lies being perpetrated on the American people. Ellsberg risked his career, his personal safety, and the threat of a decades-long prison sentence to turn the classified documents over to the New York Times and other newspapers.

Whether you see him as a hero or a traitor - and this documentary definitely comes down on the hero side - Ellsberg was a key figure in the course the Vietnam War took, and in the changing sentiments of a nation riven, in the early 1970s, by pro-war and antiwar forces. Adapted from his own book, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers - and narrated by Ellsberg, 78 at the time of filming and understandably emotional at points - the documentary offers a gripping mix of history and human drama.

It also boasts several choice cuts from Richard Nixon's Oval Office tape recordings: the president offering his own profane condemnation of the man whose disclosures would ultimately help bring Nixon's tenure to an end.

The Most Dangerous Man in America suffers from several goofily tacky animated reenactments and a music score that unnecessarily underlines the significance of key events, but for those who lived through the turmoil of Vietnam, and for the generations that have come since, the film is an important document in its own right.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.

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

Directed by Rick Goldsmith, Judith Ehrlich. Distributed by First Run Features.

Running time: 1 hours, 32 minutes.

Parent's guide: Unrated ().