Politics At The Movies

It’s become a cliché that where you stand on the political spectrum can be determined on whether or not you thought the country got better during the 1960s. Two new documentaries shed light on that period and its continued relevance today.

My dad used to like to say, “Most of the 60s really happened in the 70s.” A great illustration of this can be seen in “The Most Dangerous Man in America,” by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, which opens a one-week run at the Crest Theater on Thursday, April 1. It tells the story of how the anti-Vietnam War movement associated with the 60s finally reached its fruition in the early 70s as defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked thousands of pages of secret documents to the New York Times and other papers.

In his time, Ellsberg was easily as polarizing as any political figure we have today. A former Marine who rose to become an important aide to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in the Pentagon, Ellsberg was deeply involved in the planning and execution of the Vietnam War from the early days back in 1964 and the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

But by 1969 he was “going rogue,” in modern speak, by copying thousands of pages of secret Pentagon documents from his post in the RAND Corporation. Throughout 1971, Ellsberg released what became known as the Pentagon Papers to the press and Congress. They showed that most of what the public had been told about the War was a lie—a neat parallel with the last few years, again depending on where you stand politically.

The film argues for Ellsberg’s importance in ending not just the war but Nixon’s presidency. “Most Dangerous” plays like a fast-paced film noir, telling a gripping, complex story in a mere 94 minutes, complete with late night Xeroxing sessions (a pivotal new technology at the time), near misses by the police and break-ins by goons hired by President Richard Nixon—one of whom, Egil Krogh, speaks extensively, and regretfully, on camera.

The film makes an interesting book-end to the “The Fog of War,” the Oscar-winning 2004 Errol Morris documentary about McNamara. Like Ellsberg, McNamara was a young genius who reached the highest levels of government and defense before he was 40. But McNamara used his talents to pioneer the bombing of civilian populations in Germany and Japan during World War II—tactics later used in Vietnam. He was the guy who did that math that showed it was more economical to carpet bomb from high altitudes, with less accuracy but out of reach anti-aircraft guns.

In “Fog,” McNamara seems like a broken man, able to describe how in Japan we carried out the equivalent of destroying Cleveland every week, but unable to truly comprehend the millions who died at the end of his pen. Ellsberg, by contrast, is reborn at the halfway mark in his life. In the final scenes we see him with his wife, beaming as he is arrested at a 2008 protest against the Iraq War.

“41st & Central,” written and directed by Gregory Everett, also benefits from a willingness to look unflinchingly at its subject. At its best, the film helps dispel the sanitized modern interpretation of the Civil Rights movement. Today we mainly hear about the Gandhi-like Martin Luther King Jr., and how he and other nonviolent leaders were gunned down at the hands of white supremacists.

All true. But the full truth is a bit messier. King was one of many voices in the Civil Rights movement, and “41st” gives it’s time to those who didn’t turn the other cheek. It traces how the Black Panther Party of the 60s and 70s shared much of its roots with self-defense gangs that also helped lead to the street gangs that made headlines in the 1980s—and also overlapped with Elijah Mohammed and his Nation of Islam, among several other groups. The title of this film describes a site of one headline-grabbing gun battle between panthers and police, one of several that left a body count on both sides.

In the wider historical perspective, none of this is that unusual. The Irish (part of my own ancestry) were once a spit-upon group, and won much of their equality not just at the ballot box but in street battles that broke the old urban power structure. “41st” also traces how the Panthers’ battles in LA were an extension of what was happening in the South, as they waged war with the infamous William H. Parker, the LAPD chief who liked to recruit his officers from states that were part of the Confederacy.

The film’s main weakness can been seen in how specific the title is. The filmmaker’s father was one of these black panthers, and the film is part of a reconciliation process between the two. The problem is that Everett obviously idolizes many of these guys, and it leads to an overly-long documentary (2 hours) that gets so immersed in the minutiae of the times that it loses both the historical context and the personal power that it might have had. Though maybe it says something about how much things have changed that a story of black men with guns could have stretches where it dragged.  

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