Jewish or not, Daniel Ellsberg provides grist for a film

When upper-echelon military analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked thousands of pages of classified Pentagon documents about the Vietnam War to the New York Times and other newspapers in 1971, he was embraced as a man of conscience by many Jews — and attacked as a Jewish traitor by President Richard Nixon.

“I think everyone assumed he was Jewish, and Nixon certainly did,” said Oscar-nominated documentary maker Rick Goldsmith, who listened to countless hours of Nixon tapes as part of his research for “The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.”

Daniel and Patricia Ellsberg at the beach. photo/courtesy daniel and patricia ellsberg

In fact, Ellsberg was raised Christian Scientist. Not that that would have mattered to the paranoid Nixon, whose ranting, blanket denouncements of Jews always allowed for one exception: Henry Kissinger.

Goldsmith and fellow Berkeley filmmaker Judith Ehrlich’s fascinating, taut and timely film garnered an Academy Award nomination for best documentary last week. The film opens Feb. 19 in Berkeley and San Francisco, and March 5 in San Rafael.

Goldsmith was raised in what he describes as a Kennedy-Stevenson Reform Jewish liberal household on Long Island. He was imbued with a sense of civic obligation that he gleaned from the culture as much as from his parents.

“I grew up with that consciousness of the ’60s — there was kind of a Zionist aura to everything,” Goldsmith recalled. “On some level you got involved with social issues. That was the heart of my Jewish upbringing. It was never presented by my parents as ‘You have a responsibility,’ but it was just around.”

Goldsmith studied architecture before moving to the Bay Area after college and gravitating toward nonfiction filmmaking. His first full-length work, “Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press”, a portrait of the fearless independent journalist who died in 1995, earned an Academy Award nomination in 1997.

Ellsberg, who was born in Chicago in 1931 to Jewish parents with a passion for Christian Science, shifted from avowed hawk to antiwar activist in part due to the influence of his girlfriend (and later, wife) Patricia, the daughter of Jewish toy magnate Louis Marx.

He arrived at his gutsy decision to inform the public of the secret history of Vietnam after what Goldsmith characterized as the quintessentially Jewish process of examining everything from every angle, from the point of view of Pentagon officials to Thoreau’s imperative for civil disobedience.

It’s a process that Goldsmith knows a thing or two about.

“One of the things about documentary filmmaking, as in journalism, as in writing in general, you’re looking at your subjects and your subject matter from many points of view,” he explained. “I think that’s a Jewish thing and goes back to the Talmud.”

Filmmakers also must show their work to the world, and take responsibility for it. And that’s exactly what Ellsberg consciously took on in 1971, and has been taking on ever since with a range of issues and causes.

“Step 2 is going out on the world stage,” Goldsmith asserted, “and that’s what Jews do. They’re outspoken. They don’t care about fitting in, that you’re going to be a nonconformist, that someone’s going to think you’re an idiot, a traitor, a jerk, that you’re off base in some way. That’s why so many Jews are so active around the issue of civil liberties.”

“The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers”
opens Feb. 19 the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley and the Embarcadero Cinemas in San Francisco. Appearances Feb. 19-21 at both theaters by filmmakers Rick Goldsmith and Judith Ehrlich. Details:

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.