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The Most Dangerous Man in America

by Angelica Hill (UK), Resident Press Corps Director Rick Goldsmith, as he talked about the moment he came up with the unforgettable title to his 2009 Oscar nominated documentary, spoke of the need for a great title for something great.  It is, as he pointed out, “a golden title” (at least in its abridged form).  I-House residents were lucky enough to have had the opportunity to see The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers on January 25, followed by a conversation with Goldsmith moderated by New York Times reporter and Columbia alumni, Charles Bagli. The story of the Pentagon Papers is back in public conscientious, thanks to another Oscar movie director, (whose choice of title is punchier, but less evocative).  The Most Dangerous Man shadows Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst, who leaked 7,000 pages of top-secret government documents to the press in 1971, hastening the end of the Vietnam War. Goldsmith, with co-producer and co-director Judith Ehrlich, decided to make the film after reading Ellsberg’s book Secrets.   It was a leak that foreshadowed Wikileaks, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden – undermining the trust between the American people and their government.   Snowden apparently watched the film before becoming a whistleblower (or traitor, the taxonomy depending upon political perspective). This was an opportunity to be educated as well as entertained.  Felipe Botelho Tavares, a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at Columbia’s Institute of Latin American Studies, explained why he had attended: “First, the title: it’s quite appealing. As I don’t have a previous knowledge about what exactly happened within the US government, I was curious to watch the movie and understand better the context.”  Cuban Harold Cardenas Lema, studying for his Masters in International Affairs, was “very interested in this story because I’m a political activist in my country and a researcher in relations with the US. The domestic politics of the Pentagon and the role of the media in the US are very interesting.”   Similarly, Debbie Alexander was “interested in going to this screening to learn more about the Vietnam War as it was an atrocity.”  Alexander spoke of looking forward to seeing a documentary on a man, Daniel Ellsberg, “whose moral courage made history.”  Others, such as French filmmaker Veronique Bernard, a teacher at Hunter College, were just as interested in the technique. Other audience members had a personal connection. Paul Lauter, now retired after 60 years of college teaching, commented that he “was very active in the anti-war movement of the 60s and 70s” and had “never managed to see this film when it was first available – so I jumped at the chance to see it now.” Irene Folk was simply keen to catch up with Rick Goldsmith, an old friend.  But she added that “it’s interesting to see the pathology that permeated throughout the Nixon period and seems to be trickling down now.” There were also the documentary fanatics, always to be found at I-House documentary screenings. Gabri Bahuguna summed up what brought them out, “I find them to be the most accessible way to learn histories that are often quite obscure, the discussions after are always a privilege to gain insight on the craft-making of documentaries, as well as giving me useful interviewing techniques.” Goldsmith said he felt that it was important to present ideas around government security and secrecy to the sort of international audience reflected by I-House.  He underlined the relevance of the concepts and issues in contemporary society.  Goldsmith advised aspiring film makers and journalists to follow their heart and to cover ne issues, or at least to cover perennial issues through a new optic.  He encouraged a focus on the everyday and the downtrodden. He quoted the famous aphorism that
“the highest form of journalism is afflicting the powerful and giving power to the afflicted.”
After the screening, Goldmith discussed the process of making his film, the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, and his perception of moral courage in the face of punishment.  At the end of the discussion he hoped the viewers and listeners would go away with the message that it doesn’t matter who you are, or where you are, you can make a difference and have an impact. Somehow the veteran director managed to say this without it sounding as ‘folksy’ as it does on the page.  He extolled the ‘MeToo’ movement as a current example of such bravery. Andrew Ryan spoke thoughtfully of his ambivalence around the topicality of the subject: “Good, in the sense that when making a documentary, you strive to take away lessons that are applicable to human nature writ large. Bad, in the sense that history seems to be repeating itself in certain ways, indicating we as a society have not learned our lesson from that moment in history.“  He went on to say that “Many people seem to fall on one side of the issue or the other (i.e. it’s treason or it’s a service to the country). This is one political issue I have struggled with since I began staying informed. It boils down to where the line is between the public’s right to know what its government is doing and how it’s doing it on the one hand, and national security on the other. I don’t know where that line is. I’ve gone back and forth over the years between the two sides of this issue, seeing the merits and holes in both arguments. In that sense, I think this documentary has succeeded in its purpose, in that it has forced me to continue to wrestle with this issue and what it means for America.” Warda Saleem, a student from Pakistan, summed up the value of such screenings and discussions, particularly for those from outside the US.   She said that “coming from a country (Pakistan) which is currently facing a war-like situation, and where the US has its troops in neighborhood, I was deeply curious about the sentiments of people of America at the time of Vietnam. To me, this documentary made to learn the other side of picture that actually this nation had men with conscious and courage to stand up and speak up for humanity, no matter how much did it cost to him. Ellsberg becomes the pride of the nation for his priceless honesty for his people. Ellsberg is truly a son who defines the values of his nation. This was another brilliant effort of I-House to make its resident more aware. I absolutely loved the documentary and the discussion afterwards.” I-House regularly puts on these showings and conversations with award winning journalists, directors, and public figures. Not the worst way to spend your Thursday evening.