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.