'Dangerous' pursuit rewarding for director

Of the accolades bestowed on Judith Ehrlich's Oscar-nominated documentary, the one that has stuck with her came from the head of the Orange County American Legion Post 132.

"He came up to me after seeing the film and said, 'I am going to have all my Legionnaires watch this film,' " Ehrlich said. "I will never forget that."

After a world tour showing her film to audiences from Poland to Palm Springs, Calif., Ehrlich is bringing "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers" to the Ashland Independent Film Festival this weekend.

Ehrlich will present the film at three showings at the downtown Varsity Theatre.

The Berkeley-based filmmaker co-directed the piece with Rick Goldsmith. It documents a troubling period in American political history spanning three presidencies and a war that consumed nearly 60,000 American lives and untold thousands of Southeast Asian soldiers and civilians.

It focuses on former Vietnam War planner Daniel Ellsberg, who experienced a crisis of conscience as the war escalated into surrounding countries and decided to turn over thousands of pages of documents to the New York Times and other newspapers. These documents would come to be known as the "Pentagon Papers."

Their publication led to demonstrations in large cities across the country and fostered mistrust in the government and the administration of President Richard Nixon. In effect, the documents proved the government had misled the American people for more than a decade about the scope and intentions of the Vietnam War.

Ellsberg was vilified by members of the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations, and he was accused him of being a traitor.

Ehrlich has a different take on Ellsberg's actions.

"He made a total spiritual and emotional transition and decided it was worth possibly going to prison to uncover the truth about a war he helped plan," Ehrlich said.

"Dangerous" has garnered critical acclaim since its release last years. It currently has a perfect score on the "Rotten Tomatoes" Web site, which collects critic reviews from newspapers, blogs and magazines from across the world.

The tour to promote the film is nearly as grueling as making it, Ehrlich said.

"We did hours and hours of interviews with Ellsberg and spoke with 28 or so people who were personally involved with the process back then," she said. "It was four years in the making."

The film features archival footage of the era, but mainly relies of those who lived it to tell their own stories first hand.

"It is a documentary, but it plays like a political thriller," Ehrlich said. "We wanted to give it a different look than most straight talking-heads-type films."

Ellsberg has joined the filmmakers at several stops on the tour, but will not make the Ashland festival, she said.

"He is pleased with the film," Ehrlich said. "He feels it captures his story."

Ehrlich said audiences have made a connection between the events in the film and the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"There is a correlation there," she said. "In both cases our leaders were not truthful about the reasons for going to war and kept the public in the dark about the reasoning."

Ehrlich will take a break from directing after the "Dangerous" tour. She does plan to make more biographical films in the future.

"I am interested in people who stand up to their bosses because they are motivated by conscience," she said. "Hopefully, young people will watch this film and be inspired to become more involved citizens."

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471; or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.

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