Fog of war
"The military don't start wars. The politicians start wars," said US General William Westmoreland -- a point well taken by director Errol Morris whose recent documentary Fog of War: Eleven Lessons of Robert S McNamara has created more than a minor stir among politicians and a decidedly major one among critics. A disquieting and powerful antiwar essay, Fog is a slice of Americana about a young dreamer who rose from humble origins to the heights of political power in the 20th century. The star/villain/hero Robert McNamara, former Secretary of Defence for two American presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and as such, a key figure in the US-debacle, otherwise known as the "Viet Nam Conflict". The film takes us on an inside journey through corridors of the secret past and the many seminal events of the last century.
Based upon 26 hours of interviews with McNamara, Errol Morris probes the life of the controversial politician who for years reigned as one of the most influential figures in world politics. "People say, nothing can redeem McNamara's conduct during the war, and maybe that's true -- but the fact is, he's living to grapple with it." He alone was responsible for Kennedy's hard-line approach to the conflict in Viet Nam and already by 1961 advocated a sizeable deployment of US troops. Morris is especially proud of the film's investigative elements. The film looks into the much discussed second attack on American warships by North Viet Nam, "that triggered the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which justified our increasing involvement". As the war went on without apparent progress, McNamara grew sceptical of the effectiveness of the military action. In November 1965 he doubted that even a force of 600,000 troops could guarantee success. By 1966 he was convinced of the futility of the bombing campaign in Viet Nam. At the time of his resignation he was deeply disappointed with the war and his role in it.
"The easy thing to say would be McNamara is a bad guy, he did all these bad things." But his conduct during the war does not square with the man Errol Morris discovered through the course of his investigation: "McNamara is not the uber-hawk, the main instigator of the Viet Nam war. The story is more complex and far more interesting than I imagined." McNamara, who at 87 still cuts this intriguing figure, agreed to be interviewed despite the fact that he knew Morris was an anti-war activist who demonstrated against American involvement in Viet Nam during his college years at Wisconsin. "My feelings about the war have not changed at all over the years. I thought it was immoral and horrific then, and I still do now." At McNamara's insistence Morris deals with his involvement under General Curtis Lemay and the bombing of 68 Japanese cities that killed close to one million civilians. It's a record that causes McNamara to suggest in Morris's words: "that if our side had lost we would have been tried as war criminals. What makes your action different if you win rather than lose? That's a very powerful question."
So why is Morris giving the forum to the enemy? "The press often demonised McNamara. Any attempt to humanise him now would be viewed unfavourably." But McNamara's "mea culpa" in his Eleven Lessons do just that. The compelling documentary, which premiered 21 May at the Cannes Film Festival Special Screening, received rave reviews from critics and high praise from the public. Originally scheduled for a fall release, Sony Pictures has pushed it back to a Los Angeles/New York showing by Christmas in time for Oscar eligibility and general release in February 2004, so sure are they of a statuette at the Oscar ceremonies scheduled for 24 February .
While McNamara is a figure of remarkable interest, Errol Morris is a filmmaker of distinctive élan who has widely altered our perception of the non- fiction film. Prominent critic Roger Ebert writes: "After 28 years of reviewing film I haven't found a filmmaker who intrigues me more." Such praise is seldom come by. "He is like a magician, as great a filmmaker as Hitchcock and Fellini."
Part detective, part philosopher, part poet, part iconoclast, Errol Morris is one of the most important and influential non-fiction filmmakers of his generation. Morris delves into vexing philosophical issues of death, identity, and society with a stylish polish usually reserved for mainstream fiction films. While documentaries receive less than a fraction of the public attention and the financial rewards of the long feature films, Morris has been able to rise from the abyss of anonymity to become a notable celebrity in filmdom. He has been showered with recognition and rewards, such as a Guggenheim fellowship and a McArthur Foundation "Genius" grant.
Born in 1948 in Long Island, New York, Morris studied philosophy at University of California Berkley. Just before getting his PhD Morris switched to filmmaking and scraped enough money to produce his first film Gates of Heaven (1978). A brilliantly nuanced piece of work about a pet cemetery going bankrupt, the film is edged with humour and pathos. Its universal appeal developed a cult following, and Morris knew that filmmaking was his calling. It was not smooth sailing. During one brief dry spell he was employed as a private detective, an experience that would prove invaluable for his upcoming chef-d'oeuvre The Thin Blue Line (1988), a murder mystery that actually solved a murder. Detailing the wrongful arrest and conviction of Randall Dale Adams for killing a Dallas police officer, Morris's investigation resulted in a new trial and eventual release of the condemned.
The Thin Blue Line stretched the limits of documentary film in both style and content. A haunting musical score by Phillip Glass heightens the sharp uncertainty of where the truth really lies. Compared to Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) the film's multiple viewpoints raise the spectre of the impossibility of objective truth. Not only did it gain international acclaim, but even considerable commercial success, an achievement unheard of in documentary filmmaking. For reasons that remain a mystery it was snubbed by the Academy but received several prestigious awards among them New York Film Critics Award, and was widely recognised as one of the finest films of the 1980s. Ironically, following his acquittal, Adams sued Morris for a share of the profits!
Morris's foray into feature films was less auspicious. His lone attempt The Dark Wind (1991) was stymied by studio politics and went straight to video. Morris returned to documentaries, filming A Brief History of Time about the wheelchair-bound scientific genius Stephen A Hawking. It was dubbed "pure Morris" and awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the highly regarded Sundance Film Festival, 1992.
A one-man, one-voice film shot a year ago Fog of War seems eerily prophetic. "He's ostensibly talking about things that happened 40, 50, 60 years ago, but he could as well be talking about next week." With the Afghani quagmire unresolved, with US forces occupying Iraq and with the possibility of additional military conflict threatening, Fog becomes a pertinent lesson in "how the American Government justifies the use of the military." In an unnerving moment, McNamara looks straight at the camera and says, "What makes us omniscient? I don't think we should ever apply our power unilaterally. If we can't persuade nations with similar values, we'd better re-examine our reasoning."
A splendid score by Oscar- nominated composer Phillip Glass "who does existential dread better than anyone", helps make the film essential viewing on many levels. The day will come, we hope, when we shall realise that "war achieves nothing that diplomacy could not have achieved alone."
Until then, the young will die on fields of battle dispatched there by pondering politicians.