Fog of War

Continuing my bout of screenings with filmmakers in attendance, I wrapped up last week with the UCLA Film & Television Archives’ showing of acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris‘ new film, The Fog of War. But unlike Charles Burnett’s and AgnËs Varda’s down-to-earth interactions, Morris proved to be a showman at heart. When the sound system assailed us with a shrill reverb and technicians scrambled to fix it, Morris suggested they simply shut the whole system off. Then he announced that he preferred to stand and rose from his chair, his interviewer quickly following after him. He spoke in a measured pace with strong inflections, often pausing for dramatic effect, cueing audience reactions–a freewheeling mixture of hubris and irony informing his musings on himself and his film(s).

The Fog of War is Morris’ feature-length interview with Robert S. McNamara, former Secretary of Defense for presidents Kennedy and Johnson (’61-’68), intercut with recordings and footage which illustrate 11 lessons Morris culled from McNamara’s life. The list includes feel-good pomo proverbs like “Rationality will not save us,” “Belief and seeing are both often wrong,” and “In order to do good you may have to engage in evil”–overall there’s little to cherish. Instead, the film allows 85-year-old McNamara to recapitulate such events as World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War.

Morris’ film has been championed by critics as a savvy commentary on contemporary events, but in fact, McNamara and Morris studiously avoid making statements regarding current US policies. Long acknowledged as a statistical genius who came to Washington from the upper echelons of the Ford Motor Company, McNamara has sometimes been construed as the “brains” behind America’s escalating invasion of Vietnam, but most of his energies in The Fog of War are spent refuting this notion in itself rather than generating any direct political criticism of US administrations.

In short, this is no exposÈ, but a filmic interpretation of the same sort of information McNamara has presented in various books on the subject, most notably his 1996 best-seller, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. Although the film’s press release is quick to note its “new biographical and historical material”–such as McNamara’s response to the US firebombing of Japan where a million Japanese civilians in 67 cities were set ablaze before the US dropped the atomic bombs, and its use of rarely heard presidential tapes that suggest McNamara held a more reserved approach to war in Vietnam–there is little new evidence here for genuine historical reassessment.

That’s not to say The Fog of War is without its merits, both as an historical record and a foundation for ongoing political discussion. It held my attention, but it’s no more illuminating than any other documentary which might soberly address US foreign policy and the international community since 1945. Significantly, during the post-screening discussion, Morris explained how McNamara initially agreed to the filming thinking it was simply part of his book tour, and later followed through only as a matter of integrity in spite of discovering Morris’ reputation as an investigative filmmaker. Late in the film, McNamara states his personal rule never to answer questions that are asked of him, but only questions he wished had been asked of him, and it’s easy to perceive how this cautionary attitude informs his comments throughout the entire film. When asked about the effect of antiwar demonstrations, for example, McNamara tersely states: “It was a tense period for my family.” Next question.

An audience member asked Morris to explain his decision to feature a Holocaust denier, Fred Leuchter, Jr., in his film Mr. Death (1999). Morris claimed his initial cut of that film was comprised solely of Leuchter’s own words, but it convinced preview audiences that Morris was promoting Leuchter’s perspective. He thus later added contrary views and criticisms to the film’s structure and in my opinion, it’s a stronger film for it. But such a monologue approach defines The Fog of War as well, in which a guarded and intelligent man offers far less piercing content than the film’s direct style might initially suggest. (Morris’ famed ìInterrotronî device allows an interviewee to look at a video monitor featuring Morris, which also functions as the recording camera lens.)

If I’ve sounded overly critical of The Fog of War, it’s because I’ve elided the information it does present (doubtlessly educational for some viewers) in order to question its true worth at a time when discussions of American politics and power, international relations, and White House intrigue couldn’t be any more pressing. Morris conceded that the two primary questions that remain with him after making the film are 1) Why did McNamara continue to serve in an administration he ostensibly didn’t agree with? and 2) Why did McNamara never speak out against the Vietnam War even after resigning from his post in ’68? (The war continued for seven more years.) Indeed, those are two questions the film might have probed, but because McNamara would not discuss certain issues, Morris’ film is left without them, too.

In an interview with Morris broadcasted on NPR in 2000, a reporter asked him: “How do you stay on the side of ‘psychological quest’ and not exploiter?” Morris’ response: “By remembering, quite simply, that these are people. People like you and me. And the important thing is to tell their story often in a way that they might wish to tell it themselves. That’s what keeps it human, that’s what keeps it interesting.” But if telling stories the way politicians wish to tell them is Morris’ idea of probing documentary filmmaking, I hope he finds figures who are more forthcoming in the future.