Daniel Ellsberg is undoubtedly an American hero. As a young Pentagon hotshot with a brilliant career in the military industrial complex ahead of him, his willingness to leak the secret truth about the Vietnam War—a succession of presidents lied to the American people about their intentions in Vietnam, and then lied again about the results of their actions—to newspapers was risky. Had he squealed to the wrong person, he could have spent the rest of his life in prison for treason. It's a shame, then, that The Most Dangerous Man in America is such a bland tribute to Ellsberg; what could be a thrilling, true-life story becomes yet another dry repetition of Watergate-era footage.
Perhaps due to Ellsberg's willing involvement in the documentary, we never get a complete understanding of the man. We learn how brave he was, for standing up against the entire United States government, but his character is never fully fleshed out. In one scene, Ellsberg involves his preteen children in the plot just as he believes the Feds are closing in on him, but the scene is played for laughs when it should have been a cause for introspection. The complicated truth of the matter—that Ellsberg had an enormous ego and was often quite reckless due to his inflated self-regard—is hinted at, suggested on the edges of narration, but never explored.
The one thing that Dangerous gets completely right is the breathless few weeks when newspapers across the country, acting in concert and defying legal threats from the government, published pieces of the Pentagon Papers. The sequence is downright cinematic, and a hint of what the rest of the film could have been if it didn't spend so much time mired in dowdy context and dull narration. As it is, it's just another lecture tossed together under the mistaken belief that history is something to be endured for your own good, like a foul-tasting cough syrup.