Ellsberg at SLO filmfest

For the Watergate generation, the name Daniel Ellsberg carries special weight.

“Here was a guy who was an insider who was able to confirm what everybody knew,” documentary filmmaker Judith Ehrlich said. “He provided the seal of approval for the progressive front on the Vietnam War.”

Ellsberg, 78, is the subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Most Dangerous Man in the World: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.” He’s scheduled to appear tonight at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival alongside Ehrlich.

The Berkeley-based filmmaker first encountered Ellsberg while researching her documentary, “The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It,” about conscientious objectors during World War II.

“I took him out for breakfast,” Ehrlich said, “and we sat through lunch while Dan told me about World War II. I filled out two legal pads.”

That experience encouraged Ehrlich and her partner Rick Goldsmith to turn their lens on Ellsberg. A former U.S. Marine Corps officer and government adviser, Ellsberg first gained access to the classified documents known as the Pentagon Papers while working at the RAND Corp., a think tank. He copied them with the help of former colleague Anthony Russo.

Through 1970, Ellsberg tried unsuccessfully to persuade a few senators known for their opposition to the Vietnam War to release the papers on the Senate floor. When those efforts failed, he leaked the documents to New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan.

On Sunday, June 13, 1971, The Times published the first of nine excerpts and commentaries on the 7,000-page collection — revealing that five American presidents had purposely misled the American public about Vietnam. For instance, the documents showed that President Lyndon B. Johnson had decided to expand the war while promising in 1964, “We seek no wider war.”

As public protests mounted, the Nixon administration requested a court order muzzling The Times. Ellsberg, then in hiding and wanting to ensure that information reached the public, leaked the Pentagon Papers to The Washington Post and 17 other newspapers.

Days later, Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska entered 4,100 pages of the documents into the public record.“There’s never been a wave of civil disobedience like that in any century, in any country,” Ellsberg recalled Thursday.

He and Russo were charged with espionage, theft, conspiracy and other crimes, carrying a total maximum sentence of 115 years. All charges were later dismissed.

“Everyone took incredible risks to get that information out,” Ehrlich said. “The combination of it makes a political thriller that you couldn’t make up. It’s all true.”

Ellsberg’s story has inspired several books and at least one movie, 2003’s “The Pentagon Papers.” According to Ellsberg, however, “The Most Dangerous Man in America” is the first film to get it right.

Directed by Ehrlich and Goldmith, who previously garnered an Oscar nomination for “Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press,” the documentary combines interviews, animation, re-enactments and historical network news footage. Ellsberg himself serves as the narrator of the film.

“We’re getting an amazing reaction,” Ehrlich said. “The story really resonates with the period that we’re in now. You can’t help but say, ‘Gee, that sounds familiar.’ ”

Like the filmmaker, Ellsberg sees obvious parallels between the Vietnam War and the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As in Vietnam, he said, the chances for victory in the Middle East are slim.

Ellsberg hopes that the documentary will inspire a new wave of government whistle-blowing.

“It really does have the power to encourage people to tell the truth,” he said. “The more people see it, the more chance we have of getting out some more Pentagon Papers.”

Screening tonight

“The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” screens tonight at 7 at the Downtown Centre Cinemas, $7 to $9, 546-3456, www.slofilmfest.org.