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.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Loving My Hatred of Dwight Howard

As a rule, athletes are not articulate. I’m not promoting the stereotype that they’re dumb; they’re actually geniuses. But it’s a genius of what an educator would call a bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. The balance and grace and dexterity that allow an NBA player to dunk a basketball are so off-the-charts that he cannot adequately explain them. A mathematician with a surplus of logical intelligence might have trouble explaining how he solves equations in his head, but we don’t begrudge him that.

We see examples of what I’m talking about all the time. For instance, Joe Montana has been asked countless times to analyze The Catch. He’ll take us through how the play was called, how he felt about it at the line of scrimmage, how the play developed as it happened, and his reaction; but it never feels satisfying. Perhaps we know his truthful answer would be: “It was ninety percent instinct. I noticed Dwight Clark didn’t have a white jersey and slung the ball to him. I’m glad he jumped so high.” The minute Montana can explain how he can throw a football so well is the minute he can’t do it anymore. It’s the reason sportswriters still have jobs. Because athletes can’t interpret their own performances in a satisfying way, we have to read into the execution and consequences of their movements for ourselves.

"I'm John Wayne."

With that in mind, it might be fun to analyze why Dwight Howard is the most infuriating player in the NBA, because he certainly can’t do it for himself. And if he could control the piss-poor body language that makes me hate him so much, he would.

I remember decrying the Orlando Magic’s decision to draft him first overall because I had not been impressed with the footage I had seen of him. Every highlight of his career at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy was a dunk. There was no way, I thought, he would be able to position himself for the same plays against grown men. I hadn’t seen any development of a game beyond getting in close and overpowering everyone else. “He’s not going to be able to do that in the NBA,” I protested.

Turns out, he can. He has no trouble backing defenders down and, despite not being able to threaten them with any other move, dunk on them seven or eight times a game. I wasn't wrong to suspect that he wouldn't be able to hold his own. The reason he was picked number one is because only one other person in our era has been unbelievably strong enough to do this. And he was picked first overall too.

You know that 1996 Michael Keaton comedy Multiplicity? This construction worker starts getting clones made of himself to make balancing his professional and family life easier because, you know, that's what you do in a 1996 comedy. At first, this works great, but then the clones start to want to screw his wife and not work and stuff, plus each copy of himself is a little dumber than the one before it. The third Michael Keaton is pretty much retarded and is always messing up the whole plan, accidentally derailing the whole operation. My point? Dwight Howard is like the third copy of Shaquille O'Neal who doesn't want to work construction.

He has the same style and, at this point, an even better body, (How does he find shirts to fit those shoulders no GGM?) but, whereas O'Neal is one of my favorite players ever, I hate Dwight Howard.

He tries to do the big goofball routine that O'Neal has perfected, but he doesn't get it. Perhaps it's because, with his strict upbringing and squeaky clean image, he has no edge. Take this Vitamin Water commercial that has been running during the finals, a spot that looks low-budget enough for Harmony Korine to have shot it.

Compare that with the non sequiturs of Diesel. There seems to be a cheekiness in his delivery that is absent in the Vitamin Water commercial. Dwight Howard isn't in on the joke; he is the joke. You can picture Shaq telling dirty stories with his teammates at a strip club, while Dwight Howard is spending that time coming up with more contrived dunks. Even his Superman gimmick is a rip-off.

Okay, so he isn't as charismatic as Shaquille O'Neal. Few people are. I realize I'm biased. Howard's team just completed a fair-and-square beatdown of my son LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers, who were my playoff horse. In a way it shows just how big a LeBron fan I am that I can start hating another player just because he made King's team look silly. But the way Dwight Howard played in that series didn't do him any favors. While his name has been growing more prominent, and he's supposedly at superstar status, he still disappears from games for long stretches and is a liability for his team near the ends of games because of foul trouble. For the Lakers to win in this series, Kobe has to have a good game; for the Magic to win, Dwight Howard just can't have a terrible one. That's not a superstar.

It's his body language that really bothers me though. When he gets called for one of those fouls that I mentioned, he storms off with that huge smile on his face, as if he can't believe that he has been blamed for anything. People who smile when they're angry are sociopaths. It's science. Think about it: can you think of anyone who is actually less likeable because of his huge smile? The worst heels are the ones who think they're good guys.

This article isn't really going anywhere, especially the place I thought it would go at the beginning, back when I was writing about types of intelligence instead of Michael Keaton. You win some, you lose some I guess. I'm jumping ship.