From the pet-cemetery caretakers in his 1978 film Gates of Heaven to the social and physical pattern-makers in 1997’s Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, documentarian Errol Morris has sought subjects whose lives embody the universal in the unique. Even when they seem clearly delusional, Morris seems less interested in judging them than in getting us to understand the way they see the world.
In his new film The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara, Morris applies his method to his most controversial subject yet. As defense secretary under JFK and LBJ, McNamara was called a war criminal for his role in the escalation of the Vietnam War, and his number-crunching during World War II provided justification for the horrific firebombing of Japanese civilians. Yet anyone expecting a mea culpa or an indictment in The Fog of War will be frustrated. Morris means for us to look McNamara in the eyes and decide for ourselves.
“People talk about balance, presenting different sides,” Morris said in an interview last fall in New York. “Well, this film is decidedly unbalancedit’s McNamara’s view. Granted, there’s me hollering in the background off and on, but there’s one point of view: McNamara struggling with his own history and the history of the 20th century, which for an amazing amount of time overlap. It’s internalhistory from the inside out.
“EveryoneMcNamara, myself, youimagines themselves as the protagonist of their own lives,” Morris continues. “No one likes to see themselves as a bad person, certainly not as an evil person. There’s this idea that people have privileged access to themselvesthat you may not know what other people are thinking, but by God, you know what you yourself are thinking. I’m not so sure that that’s true. One of the things that fascinates me about McNamara is his struggle with himself and who he is: 'Am I a good man or a bad man?’”
Morris doesn’t subject McNamara to a talking-head tribunal. What criticism there is in The Fog of War comes from the visuals that illustrate McNamara’s testimony, such as a stream of animated numbers showering on Japan that represent an abstract of human “cost.” Apart from such moments, much of the film consists of McNamara looking directly into the camera. This involved ample use of the Interrotron, a specially rigged device employing two teleprompters that has figured in much of Morris’ recent work. Both subject and interviewer face a camera covered by a video screen. Instead of seeing text, as a TV newscaster would, the person facing the camera sees the other person’s facea slightly disembodied approach that nonetheless permits eye contact and casual, even candid conversation.
“When we first used it, I was worried people would run out of the studio screaming,” Morris says. “My production designer said that the irony of all of this was that it helped people to do what they do bestwatching TV.”
The filmmaker says he likes to think his approach is a different way of recording history. “Maybe it isn’t even historyI’m not sure,” he observes. It’s an attempt that prizes first-person access over the third-person technique of cinema verité.
When asked if he came to admire McNamara, Morris pauses for a moment. “A friend of mine called it the perfect example of Stockholm Syndrome,” he says. “But yes, I like McNamara, and yes, I demonstrated against him years ago at the University of Wisconsin.” Did he become more sympathetic to McNamara as post-9/11 America came more and more to resemble the fractured homeland of the Vietnam War era?
“One of the many ironies, I suppose, about this particular project is that I started work on this film before 9/11,” Morris explains. “[But] as I was making this movie, it became increasingly relevant to current affairs, and that became more and more true as time went on. I think one of the interesting things about The Fog of War is that, yes, it’s about events that occurred 40, 50 and 60 years ago, but for all intents and purposes, we could be talking about events that occurred four, five or six days ago. Since I do like irony, I find that somewhat satisfying, in a depressing sort of way,” Morris concludes with a hint of deadpan humor. “Donald Rumsfeld strikes me as a McNamara manquéa discount version of the real thing, for better or worse.”
That comment was so May 22.
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