Friday, September 11, 2009

TIFF 2009 reviews: The Most Dangerous Man In America

I have to admit, I knew practically nothing about Daniel Ellsberg when I picked up my ticket for The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. I knew the name, he's namechecked quite often in Nixon, still my favorite Oliver Stone film (and one I'm obviously going to have to revisit again when the festival winds down and I can spare the four hours), but I had little inkling about what precisely the Pentagon Papers actually were. It's not my fault: as a Canadian I never once heard discussion of recent American history in school, not to mention the fact that in my lifetime there's been Iran-Contra and the Valerie Plame Affair (yellowcakegate?) and a dozen other scandals that seem simple enough when you first hear about them but are then obfuscated by both the media and the governing party of the day until they're impenetrable messes incomprehensible to anyone but inside-the-beltway types with a vested interest in their book deal at the other end of it. This mostly-terrific documentary explains it all pretty clearly, and despite its objective, talking-heads-heavy style, shows Ellsberg to be a genuine American hero without descending into hagiography.

I'm wary about going into too much detail, as with a heavy fish dinner sitting in my stomach and another round of insomnia in the wee hours this morning I drifted off several times so I'm not totally qualified. I may have to start making Red Bull part of my nutritious breakfast to get through some of my late-evening screenings. At any rate, it's worth commenting on the crowd, which gave the subject of the film a long and heartfelt standing ovation when he was introduced at lights-up. Also there's Ellbserg's wife Patricia, who planted a huge kiss mit tongue on him as they stood at the front of the auditorium, and who is revealed in the film to be a key moral fork in the road for him, opening his eyes to the system he was a part of and the dominos he'd helped to start to topple. Daniel Ellsberg played the crowd the way Michael Moore wishes he could; positively evangelical in his activism, being 78 years old hasn't sapped him of one iota of energy or passion. True, it was a crowd already predisposed to be on his side politically (at one point he asked how many people had seen Errol Morris' The Fog of War and easily 90% of the audience shot their hands into the air and that pretty much says it all) but the crowd was in his hands no less than the Ryerson auditorium was in Jimmy Page's hands at It Might Get Loud last year. Though I had to take off, I gathered that Ellsberg was willing to entertain questions and lead group discussions in the Varsity lobby until he got dragged off. I passed by the throng on my way to the door, got a couple of pictures and felt more than a slight rush of being in the presence of a true icon of American history. A very odd night. (***)

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