279 Cents: Leaks and Plugs

279 Cents is where we share our thoughts, views and reviews about this and that, and give you the good public our 279 Cents worth about it (currently worth about £1.80 at the current exchange rate if that helps)

There is a chill wind blowing everywhere at the moment. The UK is buffeted by freezing gusts and snow, the start of winter is filled with discontent (something we’ve covered pretty extensively over the past few weeks) and there are icy gales of bluster in diplomatic circles following the leaking of secret cables by the Wikileaks site. It is this, rather than meteorological phenomena or continued protest, that we shall throw in our 279 Cents about today.

So far, the Wikileaks revelations have been stunning. We have learned that Silvio Berlusconi is vain, Nicolas ‘Sgt Sarko’ Sarkozy is thin-skinned, Putin runs the show in Russia and the Royal Family are a bit out of touch. The news that bears relieve themselves in the woods and the Pope is rumoured to be a Catholic are clearly soon to follow. In truth, most of these ‘revelations’ are confirmations of what many know, suspect, or titter quietly about watching the nightly news. Aside from the possibility that China may be cooling its relationship with North Korea, and the Saudi Arabian advocacy of what John McCain called a ‘bomb, bomb, bomb’ Iran policy, there is little in them of any great significance. Tasty details apart, like Colonel Gaddafi’s voluptuous Ukranian nurse and Russia’s secret Batcave, it’s a bit of internet chip papers.

Why then are we, a film bunch no less, discussing this news that we say is trivial and has nothing to do with our mandate as a film blog? We’re getting there. From Julian Assange’s assertion the files were obtained and leaked to keep the US government accountable, to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s denouncing of the offences, there is an unescapable historical parallel that we will work into something related to film, promise. Both the leaking of highly damaging classified files and the condemnation they have sparked calls to mind a key incident in the 1970s, one that would have far-reaching consequences. This incident is, of course, referred to as The Pentagon Papers.

For those who don’t know, The Pentagon Papers were a series of secret documents about the Vietnam War that were leaked to the press in 1971. They contained highly sensitive information about American involvement with the country from after World War II, when it remained French Indochina, until 1967 when the US were firmly entrenched in conflict with the Vietcong. They gained widespread media coverage, and, despite the fact that they pertained to previous administrations, the leaks so enraged the then President Richard Nixon that he set about hiring a team of ‘plumbers’ to plug such damaging leaks. This decision would lead eventually to the Watergate scandal, and his resignation in disgrace from the Oval Office.

That is of course a very shallow summation of what happened. The reason for this broad assessment of the situation is I wouldn’t want to spoil the documentary this post is giving a shout out to, namely The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers.

Shown as part of the BBC’s Arena strand last year, it details Ellsberg’s growing crisis of conscience about the war, his decision to leak the documents to the press and the fallout from that decision. The film shows him to be motivated by a sense of moral outrage at what the United States were doing in Vietnam (and, in one of the most harmful parts of the leak, beyond) and determined to do something about it. As a contrast, Julian Assange’s explanation that the leak of the cable dossier to Wikileaks serves solely as a way of keeping the government accountable is one that is much less justifiable. Similarly, Ellsberg’s revelations to the press exposed the lies the American people had been told about the war, whereas Assange’s revelations are mostly ambassadorial tittle-tattle and scuttlebutt, more likely to be whispered smugly behind backs in a below par period drama than a high stakes political thriller.

While The Most Dangerous Man in America is not perfect by any stretch, after all while the story is compelling the way it is told is often frustrating, it is a very interesting spotlight on a period of history that is (slightly) repeating itself. Although it is doubtful this scandal will cause Barack Obama to authorise a break in at Sarah Palin’s campaign HQ or anything of that nature. Then again, you never know…

The Most Dangerous Man in America can be rented on internet based DVD rental services or purchased via large-scale purchase thingy websites. And while your on a Vietnam bent, take a look at the excellent Fog Of War by the esteemed documentarian Errol Morris, featuring interviews with the now late Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defence for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and key architect of the Vietnam War.