Combustible Celluloid

Fog Days

An Interview with Errol Morris

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

Errol Morris is arguably the greatest living documentary filmmaker. More so than any other, he continues to find subjects that fit his personal agenda: life out of control. Morris is fascinated by the rituals and methods we use to convince ourselves that we have life by the belt. He loves nothing more than to poke holes in them and unravel them. Moreover, he has adopted a visual style that suits his explorations: slightly tilted, off-kilter camera angels that struggle to capture its un-capturable subjects, as well as strangely beautiful "filler" footage and tense, relentless music.

After a string of great films, Gates of Heaven (1978), The Thin Blue Line (1988), Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997) and Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. (1999), he has taken on his toughest subject yet, the former Secretary of Defense under President Kennedy and subsequently President Johnson: Robert S. McNamara, the man many blame for the bitter failure of the Vietnam War.

I recently spoke to Mr. Morris about his new film The Fog of War via phone from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

EM: I was attracted to McNamara's story because in it was this feeling that the world was out of control. His version of the missile crisis -- you have the movie version [13 Days] in which JFK saves the world -- could have ended with a nuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and the U.S. Someone asked me if I believe there is a risk of this happening again. There's not only a risk, there's the reality. All of these questions about historical events have uncanny resonance for the current time.

CC: During the 60s and 70s you were vocally opposed to the Vietnam War. At the time did you view Robert S. McNamara as a purely evil person?

For everybody, he was an evil type person. There are two issues: there's the person and his policies. I think it's necessary to point out, that my views of the Vietnam War haven't changed at all. It was appalling to me then, and it's appalling to me now. As for McNamara, I knew only what I heard from TV or newspapers. I now know him. And of course there's this question of is he the same man today as he was in the 60s? One of the interesting things about The Fog of War is that it has only one character. There's this feeling of a doppelganger, the 80s McNamara and the 40s McNamara. Is it the same man? It's a question I keep asking myself. Questions of personality strike me as the ultimate mystery.

CC: The most remarkable thing is that McNamara can talk about all this stuff without ever explaining it.

Sometimes he seems to be oddly abstracted from the narrative, as if he's watching history unfold. One of the interesting things in retrospect is when he gets to Vietnam -- when he became Secretary of Defense under Kennedy -- the 'I' changes to 'we.' I have asked him and others have asked him: Why didn't you resign? If you didn't agree with Johnson's policies, why didn╣t you resign? After you were fired, why didn't you speak out then? It's interesting. First of all, how many cabinet secretaries have resigned? Not all that many. How many have spoken out? Even fewer. But Mac says -- and it╣s clearly how he feels -- 'Johnson was elected and I was not. I serve at the pleasure of the president. I can disagree with the president privately, but not publicly.' I've never asked him directly, but I have a theory that he still thinks he's Secretary of Defense.

CC: Did you expect to get an apology from McNamara?

Apologies fascinate me. I've thought a lot about it. If the world is really deeply out of control, which I really believe it is, someone apologizes. The ball is in your court. They're apologizing to you. You have a choice. You can accept their apology, or not. I believe it's this deep desire to be empowered somehow. I'm not sure I have any definitive answer. It comes out of reading [McNamara's book] In Retrospect. There were countless articles, shows, all talking about McNamara's mea culpa. All saying, 'we don't accept his apology.' There were two things that fascinated me. How did people see this as an apology, when there really wasn't one? Given that there wasn't one, did they invent one and then reject it?

CC: You've interviewed a lot of people and have been interviewed many times yourself, but McNamara must have been the most experienced and slippery interviewee you've ever faced.

Every interview takes on a different character. Part of it is the cameraman and lighting the set. There is something both elusive and straightforward about McNamara that still fascinates me. Sony set up screenings in New York and they invited all the celebrity journalists. And Morley Safer came out of the screening and said, 'he certainly made quite a career of hand-wringing.' And Tom Brokaw said, 'I always thought of him as na´ve.' And it was interesting to me. A lot of the journalists had their own perspective.

CC: If people long to be in control of everything, it seems very convenient to simply blame McNamara for the war, to pin it all on him.

EM: Is history like some kind of comic book, where we always have to find a new Lex Luthor? Maybe it's something about our wiring that we can only see things in terms of heroes and villains. I don't like conspiracy theories. I have an argument against conspiracy theories. We're monkeys! Just look at people! To imagine that they can conspire together about anything for any length of time is ludicrous.

CC: Do you suppose the current popularity of documentaries has anything to do with the currently popularity of Reality TV?

EM: They feed off of each other. There are so many different kinds of documentaries as there are so many different kinds of Reality TV. My wife used to watch 'Cops' all the time. She said that it's the only show on TV where you can see authentic dÚcor.

CC: There have been a lot of movies lately -- Bowling for Columbine, Winged Migration, Stone Reader -- that have started people talking about how objective documentaries really are.

EM: The blurring between documentary and fiction, it has called attention to how easily we can be deceived. The ironic use of reenacted material makes us think about our relationship to the real world. It doesn't deny our relationship with the truth. It makes us think about the truth. I'm amused that people think that a style of presentation means truth. Style isn't about truth. Truth is about truth.

(Read Jeffrey's review of The Fog of War and his previous interview with Morris.)

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