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Robert S. McNamara was intimately involved in some of the key historical moments of the past half century. In The Fog of War, renowned documentary maker Errol Morris turns his camera on him - with startling results. Martin Donnelly reports.

Along with his countryman Michael Moore, Errol Morris has done more to counter the notion that documentaries are solemn, dry and forbidding, than almost anyone else (tellingly, Morris prefers the term ‘non-fiction’). His work prides itself on being approachable and entertaining; watching it, you have the rare sense of being taught something that is worth knowing. He’s always interesting (and interested), never faintly boring or condescending. You feel he’d be an ideal person to find yourself sitting next to at dinner.

This affability doubtless endears Morris to his subjects, both encouraging them to open up to him and enabling him to interview some tricky (not to say downright elusive) characters, all with their own highly subjective versions of the truth. But none more so than in his latest feature, The Fog of War, which presents a study of Robert S. McNamara, one of the most controversial figures in US political history.

"a 20th-century fable"

According to Morris, his film is “a 20th-century fable, a story of an American dreamer who rose from humble origins to the heights of political power”. Certainly, McNamara was both a witness to and a participant in many of the crucial events of the 20th century, from the crippling Depression of the thirties, through the rapid industrialisation of the war years when, as a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Air Force, he helped oversee the development of a different kind of warfare, based on supremacy in the air. This theory which, thanks to the close relationship between McNamara and US General Curtis LeMay, saw the firebombing of 67 Japanese cities, killing nearly one million civilians, including 100,000 in Tokyo on a single night in March 1945. This, Morris takes care to emphasise, occurred before the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet has barely featured since in official Western histories of the war.

For Morris, The Fog of War furnishes the most gravely serious subject-matter yet and, as such, marks another stage in the long, painstaking refinement of his craft. He made his film debut in 1978 with Gates of Heaven, a documentary about a pet cemetery in Los Angeles, the creatures buried there and the owners that mourned them. But he first gained serious attention a decade later with The Thin Blue Line, a mesmerising inquiry into the shooting of a Texas police officer and the subsequent life sentence handed to one of the two men accused, a youth named Randall Adams, on evidence that seemed, at best, piecemeal and circumstantial. (The other man in the car, meanwhile, one David Harris, seemed to be in the middle of a full-blown crime-spree, and himself ended up on Death Row for a separate offence). The film’s huge international success prompted a re-evaluation of the case and succeeded, finally, in getting the conviction overturned and Adams released.

With its heavily stylised re-enactments of the crime, accompanied by a hypnotic score (courtesy of composer Philip Glass), the film announced Morris’s desire to break with the traditional restrictions of screen documentary, and it’s a path that he’s followed in his subsequent work: A Brief History of Time (1991), which attempted to represent the mental processes as well as the theories of crippled physicist Stephen J Hawking; in 1997, while Fast, Cheap and Out of Control drew parallels between four apparently disparate individuals - a topiary gardener, a circus lion-tamer, an animal-behaviour scientist and a professor of robotics at MIT. 

From these, Morris advanced some fascinating theories on the passing of time, the human need for community and the nature of consciousness. Then there was Mr Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred Leuchter Jr. (1999), a remarkable study of a world-famous designer of execution equipment, who found himself coerced into the neo-Nazi movement.

"extraordinary intimacy"

Along the way, Morris has refined his methods, notably through his use of the ‘interrotron’, a system involving two-way mirrors and television monitors, which allows a subject to be interviewed by the director and yet seem, at the same time, as if he or she is speaking directly to camera. This technique serves him especially well in The Fog of War, enabling an extraordinary intimacy with the normally reserved Robert McNamara.

In examining McNamara’s WWII legacy, Morris’s film calls into question one of the most basic of all assumptions: that the war was a ‘just’ one, in which the Allies fought on the side of good. No one can deny the evil of Nazism nor the need for freedom and democracy to prevail, but McNamara himself poses a series of moral questions about his own decisions regarding Japan, about the actions of his government and, by implication, about the entire Allied role in winning the war against that Imperial nation by any means necessary. 

“In order to win a war,” he asks, “is a nation justified in killing 100,000 civilians in one night?” The flipside to the question is hardly easier to resolve: Would it be more appropriate not to burn to death those Japanese civilians, but instead to lose hundreds of thousands of American lives in an invasion of Japan?

This is not the only thorny ethical dilemma here: equally pivotal is McNamara’s role in the Cuban missile crisis, during which he was US Secretary of Defence. In some ways, the treatment of those events here might be seen as a riposte to its treatment in the recent film Thirteen Days - not a heroic tale of how John and/or Bobby Kennedy saved the world, but instead a story comprised of more or less equal parts blind luck, last-ditch diplomacy and happenstance. Even now, it makes for terrifying viewing.
It’s worth remembering, in this respect, that it was McNamara who first introduced the concept of ‘assured destruction’ - a deterrent strategy based on the premise that, were an aggressor to launch a nuclear first strike on the US or its allies, the Americans would still have the capability to retaliate with enough nuclear weapons to assure an ‘unacceptable degree of damage’ to the aggressor’s territory. 

This policy required the US to accelerate weapons technology and increase production, so as to serve a retaliatory warning to the USSR. As the Soviets increased their own nuclear capabilities, the term was changed to ‘mutually assured destruction’ or (MAD).

"a typical paradox"

Finally there is Vietnam, the conflict with which, for better or worse, McNamara’s name is today most closely associated. Morris makes extensive use of taped telephone conversations from the White House between then-president Lyndon B. Johnson and McNamara, in which we hear him urge the president to cease the bombing of North Vietnam, but also endorse his wish to continue the war. It’s a typical paradox, and one that works to the Fog of War’s advantage, making it richer and more provocative than one might expect. McNamara emerges from this study, not simply as the arrogant, hawkish technocrat of legend, but as a surprisingly complex, thoughtful and contradictory man: at once ruthless and noble, pragmatic and idealistic. He is clearly the dedicated servant of his masters, and much of the fascination of his account lies in his attempts to serve, to the best of his ability, two radically different Presidents: John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

“There’s no question,” says the film-maker, “that McNamara now feels that the war was wrong. But I wanted to know his own feelings. There’s a big difference between saying ‘A policy is wrong’ and saying ‘It’s wrong, I caused it, and I’m sorry’. Those distinctions - these questions of individual responsibility - lie at the heart of the movie. At first, I thought McNamara’s failure to apologise was a weakness; now I think that it’s one of his strengths. It’s much more difficult to analyse the causes of error than apologise for it.”

While Morris (who marched against Vietnam in college) has denied feeling nervous before his encounters with the now-87-year-old McNamara, he was nonetheless well acquainted with the formidable intelligence of his subject. “I was aware of his reputation for brilliance, and I wanted to show him respect on some very basic level,” he says. “Is he really as bright as they say he is? Maybe it comes back to my suspicions about government in general. We’ve certainly been disabused of the notion that our Presidents have to be on the ball. Yet when I heard the tapes of the recordings that Kennedy made of discussions about the Cuban Missile Crisis, I felt that I was listening to a very smart, dedicated and accomplished group of people arguing the issues.”

For Morris, there’s nothing as strange as people’s real lives, and nothing better than hearing them depart from the scripts they’ve been given, to speak freely and surprise the viewer - and, occasionally, themselves. This democratic attitude makes him a rarity in the ever more tightly controlled environment of American cinema, and he’s delighted to keep it that way. 

“It’s really exciting,” he has said, “to see the unexpected. So much Hollywood film-making has been cookie-cutter film-making - films which basically look very much alike and work in very similar ways.

"exploring the boundaries"

“I’m not sure that this is an argument for everybody, but I think that what’s exciting about any art form is seeing people that are really exploring the boundaries, the limits of the medium, rather than doing the same thing as everybody else. Certainly it’s what excites me. And I’d love to see an audience for that kind of film-making as well. Because it’s different doesn’t mean it can’t be dramatic, interesting, exciting. In fact, it could be even more so.”

Published March 18, 2004

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