Register Tuesday | June 25 | 2019

The Defence Secretary and the Documentarist

Errol Morris's The Fog of War

Some time ago, Errol Morris spoke at a popular journalism conference in Boston. He didn’t say all that much, actually, but he did screen some of his newest film, a work-in-progress about former US secretary of defence Robert S. McNamara.

“I didn’t want to interview anybody else,” Morris told the rapt audience, somewhat defensively. “Just him, telling us about his experiences. So it becomes internal, subjective by choice.”

McNamara has plenty of experiences to discuss. To many, he is the architect of the Vietnam War. Morris demonstrated against him as an undergraduate, and in the movie, for which Morris just won his first Academy Award, the filmmaker subjects McNamara to a sort of inquisition.

What Morris showed that day in Boston was a harrowing montage that ends with McNamara, in close-up, looking into the camera and essentially calling himself a war criminal. The film punctuates the moment by slowing that last shot down: McNamara’s words continue but his face stays still, forcing us to look him in the eye and, presumably, see straight through to a deeply troubled soul.

For all its slick indulgence--the artful angles, the pared-down gravitas of Philip Glass’ score, the slow-motion skulls flung down stairwells or dominoes spilled over maps, the grim statistics flashed across grainy footage of decimated targets--nothing else in The Fog of War outdoes that simple image, that human face. It was with the same technology--a modified teleprompter called the Interrotron that allows interviewees to talk directly to the camera while maintaining eye contact with the interviewer--that Morris made his series of fun, disarming commercials about why and how people have switched from IBM to Apple computers. Now he’s on to why and how people make modern warfare, and it’s nice to see that he hasn’t lost his touch.

That montage clip was so arresting that the crowd demanded Morris show it again. That suited him fine, baffled as he seemed by the task of explaining his process to a room full of professional notebook wielders. He spoke elliptically and shrugged often. He called himself a lousy listener and said he considers himself a failure because all his films turn out different from what he’d expected. He noted that he associates one film, The Thin Blue Line, with his guilt “about taking forever to make an art film when a straight documentary would have gotten the guy out of jail sooner.” But he knew he owned the room, and seemed to enjoy that. Somehow Morris seemed at once aloof and deeply engaged.

In that regard, McNamara--plainly ambivalent about his own professional life but never entirely beyond rationalizing it--may be Morris’ perfect subject. The filmmaker has made his career limning the lives of eccentrics and has said he wants to make movies “about ostensibly nothing.” But the subtitle of The Fog of War is “Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” which suggests that it is ostensibly about something. Morris is also on record objecting to what he calls “the Mother Teresa school of filmmaking,” in which people assume a movie is inherently good just by virtue of its involvement with an inherently good subject. You needn’t be a pundit to point out that Robert McNamara is no Mother Teresa.

“Any military commander who is honest will admit that he makes mistakes in the application of military power,” McNamara says in the film, sounding firm but defensive in much the same way that Morris did at the conference in Boston. It’s not exactly an apology, but who expected one?

The Fog of War doesn’t let McNamara off the hook, but it does seem to know where he’s coming from. That turns out to be the film’s best asset, a bashful truth. Morris and McNamara--who have since appeared on stage together to discuss the film and the state of the world--seem to share a “Hey, why should I explain myself to you?” attitude, even as they expend considerable energy explaining themselves. In his Oscar acceptance speech, Morris said, with conspicuous irritation, “I’d like to thank the Academy for finally recognizing my films!” The uncomfortable fact remains that his real debt is to McNamara, himself no stranger to the need for recognition.

Maisonneuve contributing editor Jonathan Kiefer writes about the arts for various publications in San Francisco, where he lives. One of his cats is named after Preston Sturges. Read his exploration of San Francisco cinema ("San Francisco Dreaming") in Issue 9, on newstands now. Film Flâneur appears every other Thursday.