Thursday, February 16, 2012

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

I had studied the Pentagon Papers in several classes, as I’m sure many political science majors have, but I never got a truly all encompassing look at what the situation was about. This film gave it to me in a way that I had never seen before. By providing Dr. Ellsburg as the main narrator, the audience is given the best possible primary source, and it is surrounded with other quality sources, such as Anthony Russo, numerous reporters and lawyers involved in the case, and just about everyone involved at the Rand Corporation, several branches of government, and even the Ellsburg family. Everyone interviewed offers a fresh perspective with critical information about what was happening.
The movie is presented chronologically, starting with how Ellsburg got involved in government in the first place, and ends with what Ellsburg has achieved in the aftermath of this tumultuous period in his exciting life. The audience is exposed to how the plot to create the Vietnam War is hatched and how it is executed. Ellsburg talks thoroughly about his experience on the other side, helping craft the war, keeping it secret from the right people in government (including President Johnson), and perpetuating its life despite its questionable existence to begin with.
The film does a great job of showing how, over time, our protagonist gets fed up with the war efforts and can no longer continue to delude the American public, as well as himself. We learn what happens as the war goes on, who he meets that influences him towards his eventual course of action, and how he slowly breaks lose from the military-industrial complex that he indirectly supports.
The director does not just center around the political controversy, he interviews Patricia Ellsburg and gives us the details of what they had to do when they were briefly in hiding from the FBI. We also get critical commentary from the New York Times General Counsel about how the trial was run and what the legal implications were. The Nixon administration strived quite vigorously to ensure that the First Amendment would be compromised in this case, and in that laid its down fall. One of the highlights of the film is the showing of how Ellsburg invited Nixon to shoot himself in the foot by establishing the notorious “plumbers unit” that was responsible for the grunt work of the Watergate scandal that ended Nixon’s presidency and led to the end of the war. It is at this point that Ellsburg is praised by numerous contemporaries of what an historical figure he is, and rightfully so.
The film is important because it gives any historically inclined person such a breath of information on such an important incident. It is a piece of cinema that should broadcast to all high school and college youth studying mid-twentieth century America. Such a significant time period is given such fantastic context and coverage that it will leave all but the most studious professors with a greater understanding how our great nation came into and out of such a horrible chapter in its history, and the man who made it all possible.


It has been nearly five years since I last saw Michael Moore’s documentary on the American health care system. Back then, I remember that it riled me up to a degree. It was my first Moore film and I did not know much about him. I am now a bit older and wiser, I’ve been exposed to Roger and Me as well as Capitalism: A Love Story. In other words, I now know that he is more than a bit left of center and is not above extremist views. I also know that he is a fan of meshing entertainment and politics, often focusing heavily on the entertainment part. I think I was better adept at giving constructive criticism this time around.
The film spends the first half hour showing us case after miserable case of the people that our non-universal health care system has wronged in one way or another. We see cut off fingers, dying babies, and other tear jerking accounts. Moore is a talented filmmaker, but not necessarily a good documentary filmmaker. He knows how to subdue the audience with tragic, and probably rare, incidents before he moves into his political stances. He paints Congress members out to be evil, and of course his favorite head of state, Mr. Bush. He strives his hardest to paint a dreary picture of the American scene, being only briefly optimistic over Gitmo health care as the punch line to a nearly two hour joke.
But Michael Moore knows that if he lets people leave the theater feeling bad, they won’t respond to or remember his films as much. He wants you to feel good, know that the system is broken, but there is hope. And where is there hope? Ever hear the phrase, “the grass is always greener on the other side”? In this case, it’s the other side of the border in Canada, which has universal health care. The other side of the Atlantic is mentioned too, notably Great Britain and France. Even the other side of the political spectrum, Cuba, is revered for its positive practices in policy. In these places, we meet ex-parliament members that have ideal views of democracy, expats from the United States that are living well in the socialized system, and even firefighters that Moore makes you think respect 911 workers more than anyone in America. No one is mean, or even mild mannered. Everyone is charming, lovely, happy, and most importantly healthy.
I’m not saying that there is no truth to the benefits of socialized medicine, I actually support the idea (though not in the God awful way that Obamacare has been designed). I accept that the United States is severely flawed in this regard and must change. What I do not support, however is the way in which Michael Moore presents the issue. He is not a balanced commentator on the issue. He is hell bent on presenting his views as a mandate from heaven, while any other alternative is brutish and equivalent to seventeenth century standards of the evil monarch. He wants you to cry over your situation and drool hungrily over what the other side has. He does not consider any of the consequences of the implementing such policy here, how long it would take, and what is reasonable or achievable. He presents himself as nothing short of the ideal American, but this American thinks he’s anything but.