2 February 2004 | thecineman
Morris Versus McNamara and the Political Pundits of the Left
If you're like Errol Morris, and you want to make documentaries about unusual personalities, it's one thing to choose obscure subjects, people like Fred Leuchter (aka "Mr. Death") or men that excel in topiary hedge sculpture or the study of the African mole rat (two of the people interviewed in "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control"). Not many critics out there will be waiting to pounce if you don't get things just right about the likes of people like these. But it's quite another matter if you choose Robert S. McNamara, one of the last century's most towering, controversial, and - some would say - evil characters. "Fog of War" distills more than 20 hours of interviews that Morris conducted with McNamara over a span of two years, when McNamara was in his mid-80s, and the subjects - all various McNamara ventures - range from "his" World War II, through his days at Ford Motor Company, the Cuban missile crisis, and - finally and mainly - his views of the Vietnam War.
As a result, Morris now finds himself in a no man's land of critical crossfire. On the one hand, film critics - people like Steven Holden, Roger Ebert and J. Hoberman - uniformly praise this work. While political pundits of the left - people like Eric Alterman and Alexander Cockburn of "The Nation" - lacerate Morris, accusing him of being overmatched, manipulated, not doing his homework (i.e., being naïve and unprepared), and thus allowing his film to be nothing but a conduit for the formidably crafty McNamara's continuing campaign of self aggrandizement and distortions of history. Whew. I think the controversy here is based on a misconstruction of the film's purposes by the pundits. First, it is quite clear that McNamara, in full command of his fierce intellectual and interpersonal powers, is not about to be pushed around by an assertive interviewer. McNamara is gonna say what McNamara wants to say, period. To drive home this point, Morris gives us a brief epilogue in which he asks McNamara a few trenchant questions about his sense of responsibility for the Vietnam War, why he didn't speak out against the war, and so on. And McNamara won't bite. He stonewalls Morris absolutely, with comments like, "I am not going to say any more than I have." Or, "I always get into trouble when I try to answer a question like that."
More importantly, it doesn't matter very much if Morris or McNamara does not get all the facts straight. If the political pundits went to the movies more often, at least to Morris's films, they would know that his primary interest is in the character of his subjects - their integrity and beliefs and ways of explaining or rationalizing themselves and their lives: he's into people way more than into facts. "Fog of War" is not an oral history, it is the study of a person. For all that, in my estimation, Morris does get on film as close to an acceptance of responsibility for his actions in two wars as McNamara is likely ever to make, short of some dramatic, delirium-driven deathbed confession. He speaks of the likelihood that he and Curtis LeMay would have been deemed war criminals for the fire bombing of Japanese cities, had our side lost. And he speaks clearly when he says "we were wrong" in not seeing that the Vietnam War was a civil war, not a phase of some larger Cold War strategy by the USSR or China. What do the pundits want?
Nor was it Morris's purpose to use Santayana's lesson about repeating history to rail at Bush's preemptive war in Iraq. In fact Morris decided to make this film way back in 1995, after reading several books by McNamara and concluding that he was a quintessential man of the 20th Century, embodying all that was so outstandingly smart and sophisticated and ultimately destructive. The interviews wrapped sometime in 2001, the year before Iraq. As usual in Morris's films, the editing is superb, with seamless use of archival footage and special visuals created for this film. I do think Morris gratuitously flattered McNamara by organizing the film around 11 platitudes of his - many of them banal aphorisms known to most high school graduates, students of martial arts, or your grandmother (e.g., "get the data," "empathize with your enemy," "rationality will not save us," "belief and seeing are both often wrong").
Political pundits, mired in interpreting concretisms from the historical record, not only see too few films but also don't take seriously the symbolic visuals and sounds offered here. Philip Glass has created an edgy, anxious score that feels just right, just creepy enough for the macabre subjects at hand. I'm also thinking of the scenes when McNamara is recounting his pioneering (he claims) studies of auto safety. As we listen to him, Morris shows us human skulls wrapped in white linen being dropped several floors through a stairwell to smash upon the floor below, all in slow motion. The effect is chilling and speaks volumes about McNamara's famed passionless capacity to treat human carnage as a matter of statistical calculation. It is through such poetic characterization that Morris keeps the game with McNamara in balance.