Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Director Report Card: Errol Morris (2003)

8. The Fog of War
Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

In 2004, Errol Morris finally won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. It had been a long time coming. Considering what the filmmaker had done to change the genre, considering how beloved and respected so many of his films are, it really should have happened much sooner. That “The Fog of War” would be the Morris film to finally win the award isn’t surprising. It’s a serious political work, a long form interview with Robert McNamara, a controversial historic figure. The film is both probing and personal, providing insight into history from a man who molded it.

“The Fog of War” is structured around eleven lessons former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara has learned over his long career. The interview cycles through his time in World War II, his post-war career as a successful executive at Ford Motors, before focusing primarily on his time as Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War. As McNamara explains his points, Morris cuts in with historical recordings and questions of his own.

“The Fog of War” may be the most complex film about war ever made. I don’t mean its construction or technique. Too often, war is reduced to action movie theatrics or simple stories of good vs. bad. Even films that claim to approach how difficult a subject bloody conflicts are reduce wars to tragedies, with little more complexity. “The Fog of War” addresses how difficult decisions are made all the time during a conflict. How men in command have to send people to their death and how those men aren’t always certain of their own choices. By going behind the scenes of Vietnam, Errol Morris has revealed that nothing about war is easy or clean.

This is clear early on. “The Fog of War” begins with the earliest part of McNamara’s career in the military. He describes his quick ascent through the ranks, quickly achieving a reputation as a strategist and a Whiz Kid. Most bracing, McNamara discusses his own fixed feelings concerning what the American military did during the Pacific campaign. When discussing the fire bombing of Japan, he compares the destruction and lives lost to similarly sized American cities. To hammer the point home, Morris flashes the numbers on-screen. McNamara out-right questions the brutality of these tactics before admitting that himself and his colleagues would’ve been persecuted as war criminals if America hadn’t won the war. Not only does Morris illustrate the cost of war, he also shows how open and frank this interview will be.

The frankness of these early interviews cast a new shadow over the standard biographical aspect of the documentary. The courtship of his wife and the birth of his children are topics that come up. This segues into his time as President of Ford Motors. McNamara applied the same tactics he used in war to the car company, helping to raise Ford’s profit. Oddly, even during this time, McNamara places great value on human life. The fatality of the car accident, the design flaws that caused them, are skimmed over. A hypnotic sequences recreate a moment when McNamara and his co-workers dropped artificial skulls down a staircase, to test the affect of an impact on them. When McNamara was offered the position of Secretary of Defense, he actually took a pay cut from what he was making at Ford.

These scenes and more make it clear that one of Morris’ goal is to humanize Robert McNamara, the great architect of Vietnam. This is best illustrated during his memories about President Kennedy’s death. McNamara mentions an incident where he visited the president’s cemetery site. The reminiscence concludes with McNamara breaking down in tears. It’s clear that McNamara’s time as Secretary of Defense wasn’t just a job for him. The sudden, violent loss of Kennedy was a wound felt by everyone in the country. McNamara is made into more than just a stale voice of authority.

A pivotal moment in “The Fog of War” happens early on. From off-camera, we hear Errol Morris asks McNamara about Vietnam. The former Secretary of Defense changes the subject, turning the conversation towards his time at Ford first. Eventually, the interview subject has to bring up Vietnam. Over and over again, McNamara expresses regret over what happened during that conflict. He mentions a misunderstanding before the war, involving a ship that was believed to have been sunk by Vietnamese forces. (It wasn’t.) Over and over again, he bemoans the amount of lives lost during the war. He regrets his own involvement, actively admitting that the best decisions weren’t made.

Maybe hindsight is everything. Morris often contrasts McNamara’s current interview with archive’s recordings from the time. Sometimes, the former Secretary’s words seem to line up. More than once, President Lyndon Johnson can be heard discussing a more aggressive intermission in Vietnam, while McNamara stresses that enough lives have already been lost. Other times, the conversations recorded thirty years prior betray McNamara’s current statements. Sometimes, he immediately agrees with the President’s words. Other times, he suggest more men on the ground, more soldiers tossed into the fray. Morris is not incriminating McNamara or calling him a hypocrite. Instead, he’s showing that time and recognition can make all the difference.

For the third time, Philip Glass provides the music to one of Errol Morris’ film. Musically, the soundtrack to “The Fog of War” is not as exciting or novel as the music for “The Thin Blue Line” or “A Brief History of Time.” Glass leans very heavily on his beloved repetition. Sometimes, the constantly repeating strings or piano keys start to swallow one another, any melodic beauty lost. However, occasionally a more picturesque bit of music emerges, such as a singularly played flute or a burst of percussion. Isolated from the film, Glass’ “Fog of War” score does not make a huge impression. However, when paired with Morris’ images, the music becomes inseparable from the film’s success.

Robert S. McNamara is human, like all of us, with a complex personality, who has made mistakes and regrets them. By giving us a peak into a divisive historical figure’s head, Errol Morris provides a face – and perhaps a soul – to history. Moreover, “The Fog of War” makes it clear that nobody makes it out clean in a war. That, when human lives are at stake, no decision is made lightly. The audiences are put in the place of the decision makers, left to wonder if they would make similar choices in the same situation. If history would judge them fairly. While “The Fog of War” is not my favorite of Errol Morris’ films, it is undoubtedly one of his most important. [Grade: A]

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