Confessions of a War Criminal: Errol Morris’s The Fog of War Screens This Weekend

08/11/2011 10:40 AM |

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The Museum of the Moving Image has been running a timely salute to Errol Morris, which concludes this weekend with Saturday and Sunday screenings of The Fog of War.

As the director’s Tabloid accrues praise, it’s worth reviewing this disconcerting 2003 feat, which began as another entry in Morris’s First Person TV series before the box could no longer contain it. It screened at Cannes only a couple months after the Iraq invasion, and there are assorted attempts to relate former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s discourse to the concurrent liberation-cum-gestating civil war. In subsequent interviews, McNamara said that he was commenting on war in general, and would never criticize a current Defense Secretary’s actions, but it’s difficult not to read an arraignment of the United States’ Vietnam-repeating near-unilateralism into “If we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merits of our cause, we’d better reexamine our reasoning.”

The artist Morris was after something more enduring than the cheapo rushed judgments in the anti-Bush docs that deluged indie outlets and hogged arthouse space in the months and years following the invasion. Some of these slapdash docs might’ve crudely served their purpose as awareness raisers, but they marked a depressing low point for the documentary as cinematic art. Lefty agitprop products like Bush’s Brain and Outfoxed were meant to be glimpsed and forgotten, but Morris wisely holstered his bullhorn, turning an extended Interrotron interview with McNamara into a biography with Philip Glass-scored clips and Cabinet recordings. He then pogosticked off of that into an examination of the luck, egomania, and banal cruelty that goes into war making.

The movie’s subtitle is “Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” which suggests a rigid, college course structure. But the war lessons, arranged and worded by Morris, vary from the generic (“Never say never,” “Maximize efficiency”) to the nebulous (“There’s something beyond one’s self'”) and the film often digresses out of the eleven to include other maxims and guidelines (McNamara, via Morris, also adds ten more in the DVD supplements). It is one of these extra rules that bluntly marks McNamara as Morris’s competition—”Never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked of you.” The subject follows this rule throughout, and he is in control, doling out contriteness, pride, and sentiment in precise measures, and subtly nudging blame to figures like General Curtis LeMay and President Johnson while always adding that he is not blaming anyone.

Morris is only heard a few times, dimly shouting clarifications and questions as McNamara looks straight at him and us (per the Morris-designed Interrotron’s unique schematic). The obvious retaliatory tactic would be to attack McNamara with the between-interview clips and graphics. But while some of the latter are a bit lame (huge dominoes toppling over a chessboard map), they’re never underhanded. Glass’s score gives the subject’s recounting of wartime mistakes a gloomy cast, but it echoes the sensible sadness in McNamara’s “I think the human race needs to think more about killing.”

McNamara, who died six years after The Fog of War, was eager to speak, and Morris gave him enough rope to qualifiedly hang himself. He recalls helping orchestrate the firebombing of Japanese cities with General LeMay, including an attack on Tokyo that killed over 100,000 civilians in one night. After he says, “He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals,” Morris pauses on his face, and it’s such a shocking admission that you need the break to catch your breath. Family man McNamara cries over Kennedy and quotes T.S. Eliot, but his remorse is still prideful as he admits to administering and (so he would have it) begrudgingly prolonging a wrongheaded, unwinnable war in Vietnam.

4 Comment

  • just a minor point – the 11 lessons were chosen/written by Errol Morris. McNamara regularly complained (during production, as well as after the release) that they were not his, which Morris has corroborated.

  • The substance of the lessons is all McNamara from the interview and echoing his book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, but you’re right that the onscreen wording was chosen and arranged by Morris. Will correct, thank you.

  • Director Errol Morris is being sued by Joyce McKinney who he maliciously slanders in the Mockmentary Porno Doc “Tabloid”, for fifty milion dollars, Ms. McKinney also plans to press criminal charges against his producers for stealing photos of her, her family home movies, two film treatments, and a valuable memorabilia collection documenting her famous 1977 love story– from her luggage which were later altered to make it apear that she was a nude model and prostitute, which was NOT true. She is also having them charged with Grand Theft and Fraud for pretending to be from Showtime Network doing a TV series on Paparazzi, to trick her into an interview which they alter altered and edited to make the 112 pound Former Miss Wyoming USA appear “crazy” and as a “kidnapper rapist of a 300 pound 6’5″ Mormon”! The former Miss Wyoming USA from a devout Christian family was never even charged with “raping a man”, but the nutty Morris used libelous Mormon-sourced tabloid slander stories to falsely make it appear that she was a “kidnapper and rapist” and repeated Mormon slander stories without checking them out–including a false Mormon sourced tabloid stories that she “chloroformed her fiance and held him at gunpoint and then chained him to a bed and raped him with mink lined handcuffs.” Morris’ producer also tresspassed where she was staying, physically assualted and terrorized her into signing a paper which the producer said was for studio publicity stills but was really probably a ruse to absolve them of the burglary so they could use the stolen photos for thier twisted film.–They put her under duress to sign a paper by telling her that her guide and mobility dog would be killed at the pound and then paying some hoodlum $2,000 to arrange the savage murder of the noble little service dog. Ms. McKinney is a physcially handicapped partially blind elderly woman, and she desperately needed her service animal! Ms. McKinney was nearly hysterical as she picked up his bloody body where he had been choked and stabbed at the pound! His teeth were broken off and his tongue chewed nearly in half. There was a tranquilizer dart mark where they had immobilized him while they had tortured him while stabbing his lungs to deflate them while he was still ALIVE! Apparently the sleazy MORMON CONNECTED producer was in clussion with pound kilers as he was trying to freak Ms. McKinney out and into having a nervous breakdown so they could proceed with their perverted film which would also stop her from writing the book. She has severe insomina and is still fighting depression and nightmares over all this and always will have to deal with the psychological scars that calloused cold hearted Morris and his scumbag money and fame oriented producer Lipson caused with their hideous actions! After the producer’s involvement in her dog’s murder, Joyce knew he was up to something and began investigating and called Shoitme and found out that there WAS no “Showtime TV series”. it was a trick to get footage on her for nefarious purposes, as later she learned the dummy Showtime contract was
    fake. She also learned that they were doing a porno movie on her precious love story and cult rescue of her fiance from the Mormon cult–only in a twisted fashion with her “kidnapping and raping him” the sick Mormon cover up story! This ordeal has devastated her and her innocent family.
    Morris has been sued before by Randy Adams subject of THIN BLUE LINE, and his subject of VERNON FLORIDA actualy formed a lynch mob to kill him when he made up stories on THEM. Morris is a twisted man with a twisted mind. He is so stupid he actually reads and collects tabloid newspapers. As for the shattered victims of his films, he doesn’t care who he hurts, how he destroys their lives, or what pain he causes them. He is an athiest, works only with other liars like him who can be “bought” with the cash he pays them to slander people. MISS MCKINNEY IS SEVERELY TRUAMATIZED BY THE SLANDER in Morris’ trashy film Tabloid and her mother became so depressed by the onslaught of meida harassment and the family ‘s invasion of privacy that Morris’ Mormon -sourced slander film resurrected, that she tried to kill herself when the media began harassing them again and is now in a coma on life support not expected to live. Her father is also saddled with $325,000 in medical bills which keep climbing as Ms. McKinney’s mother must be kept on a life support breathing apparatus and feeding tubes. Errol Morris and his producers cared only for one thing: Money and fame. They were only to happy to work with the Mormon cultists and a sleazy tabloid who bribed Ms. McKiney’s dog walker and his cronie (a drug addict who needed dope money) to break into her home back in 1978 to steal photos which the tabloid, then altered to make her appear that she had been a “nude model”. Morris copied the tabloid technique and his ruse wil be exposed in a court of law. And the creep who has painted himself with his PR teams AS A “DOCUMENTARIAN” may find himself paying out millions of dollars in Ms. McKinney’s slander action agsint him, as well as his sleazy thieving producers going to jail! More later…

  • On how many comments sections have you pasted that rant?