Tuesday, June 09, 2009

#50 Film of the Decade- The Fog of War

The Fog of War: 11 Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara- Errol Morris (2003)

Watching the playoffs a few weeks ago, I complained that Cavaliers coach Mike Brown should be fired. My wife tried to stand up for him by asking: "Do you have all the answers? Could you do his job?" It's a common and rather facile defense, that we have no right to criticize people with more ability or expertise or responsibilities than us. No, I couldn't do his job, and he might not be able to do mine either. That shouldn't change the fact that there are expectations set forth for his job that he is not meeting, and if we look at those failures or lapses in judgment with objectivity, we are much better off.

Errol Morris' documentary The Fog of War interprets this idea through the prism of Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. With steely resolve, at the meditative age of eighty-five, he looks back on his life, as well as the controversial decisions that informed it. The film is structured into eleven lessons that the scrutiny and pressure of his job taught him. Early on, McNamara tells an anecdote about his hesitance to accept Kennedy's nomination, a hesitance Kennedy calmed by saying, "I don't believe there's a handbook on how to be president either." The lessons McNamara narrates here are as close as we're going to get. With humility and honesty, he is always able to explain the rationality of one of his moves, often striking a chord between complex utilitarianism and "hell, somebody's gotta do it."

His objectivity is a perfect match for Errol Morris, one of the two most successful documentarians of the past twenty years (whatever "successful" means when discussing an area of art that is so tied to public service). The other gentleman I'm referring to is Michael Moore, but whereas Moore is biased and loud, placing himself into the presentation's center stage, Morris is measured and detached, fading into the background. In fact, he wants the focus on his interview partner so much that he invented the Interrotron, a device that allows for his subject to directly face the lens of the camera and look him in the eye at the same time. He captures some unforgettable moments with this machine, and it's devastating for McNamara to seemingly stare into our eyes as he talks about the towns he was responsible for firebombing.

In fact, that equality, the intellectual give-and-take between Morris and McNamara, is what makes The Fog of War a more affecting portrait than some of his earlier work. At times in the past (Mr. Death, Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control), it has seemed as if the people Morris is interviewing are not in on the joke, or that he is one step ahead of them, able to bend their words to fit his thesis. This is not the case with McNamara, who always stays in control and has an answer prepared for any point Morris wants to bring up. The readiness with which he does this makes him even more compelling.

Technically, there's a lot to like here. Long-time collaborator Phillip Glass provides a plaintive score that gives the film the gravity it needs, and Morris edits some effective sequences of jump-cuts to match visually what McNamara is narrating. But in the end this is a pretty simple film with an intimate focus on one man. He's an open book--so open that an hour in he divulges the bombshell that JFK planned to pull troops from Vietnam completely after the '64 election, which was previously unknown--but that doesn't mean he's blithe or unmoved by what he's been through. His decisions follow him, sagging and drooping like the overcoat he wears near the end of the film. The one thing everyone can agree on by the end? No one would want his job.


Will said...

Alex Gibney? I'd say he qualifies as "more successful" than Morris, especially over the past 10 years or so. But that may just be my absolute hatred of The Thin Blue Line coming out.

Chris said...

I absolutely disagree. As good as Gibney is, I think three times as many people would know Errol Morris, not only from his films but from his commercials and "First Person" series on PBS. While Morris' documentaries haven't always been great, Gibney's "Gonzo" absolutely sucks, and there is nothing on Morris' resume that bad. Each of Morris' films has made more money than Gibney's, and--though you may hate it--The Thin Blue Line single-handedly exonerated a man from murder and released him from prison. It's hard to say that something like Taxi to the Dark Side has provoked that sort of real change.

Adam said...

Fantastic movie. I purchased it and War Room. Good viewing.

Reves said...

Classic. Just as important as any book I read in my int'l affairs program.

FYI - Secretary of Defense, not State.

Will said...

I have to respectfully disagree, I guess. I certainly think more "normal" people would have heard of Gibney, especially since he won the Oscar last year (2 years ago?). While Morris has a larger lifetime box office gross, he's been working a lot longer. Their most successful films, respectively, made almost exactly the same amount. I don't see anyone that hasn't taken a film class before recognizing the name Errol Morris, but a lot of people might recognize Gibney just because he's the "it guy" documentary filmmaker right now (Michael Moore doesn't count).

I looked up some numbers real quick, re: domestic grosses:

Fog of War 4.1
Mr Death 495k
Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control 832k
Brief History of Time 2.2m
Thin Blue Line 1.2m

Gonzo 1.2m
Taxi to the Dark Side 274k
Enron: TSGITR 4.1m

Chris said...

Yeah, I really messed that up, Nick. I've corrected it.

Will, you're wrong on this. The original argument that you're twisting around was "who is more 'successful'?" You're basically admitting Morris is more successful by saying that Errol Morris has been working for a much longer period of time and has a bigger lifetime box office gross. Who would recognize whom is kind of irrelevant. Errol Morris has had a bigger impact on the world of non-fiction film and film in general than Alex Gibney has. He has an Oscar and a DGA Award and an Emmy to back that up. He has The Guardian's list of 40 Best Directors in the world to back that up. He has all of the techniques he has popularized, which Gibney has taken and run with, to back him up. With his use of himself as interviewer, his multiple perspectives, his use of original music, and his editing techniques, he has revolutionized documentary film more than anyone else ever. Alex Gibney has made two really good movies.