Conflict Of Interest: One Film, Two Takes

 

Errol Morris Fails to See Robert McNamara Through the 'Fog'

By Matthew Wilder

The nominees for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role are...: Robert S. McNamara (left) and Robert S. McNamara (right) in 'The Fog of War'
Sony Pictures Classics
The nominees for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role are...: Robert S. McNamara (left) and Robert S. McNamara (right) in 'The Fog of War'

In Sophocles' Ajax, the hero, one of the most valiant of Greek leaders to have served at Troy, is denied the promotion he deserves and deceived by the goddess Athena's "darkening of his mind" into believing that the Greek army's livestock are, in fact, his political enemies. One of the most shocking moments in Greek drama occurs when we discover Ajax sitting stunned amid the carcasses of slaughtered sheep. The terror of the play comes in

Ajax's slow-dawning realization of what he has done, and the alternately candid, defiant, and deluded tactics he uses to deal with the knowledge. Ajax finally falls on his sword, and the devastating irony of the play comes in its long duration after his death, as those unworthy to judge him--many of them superior in rank--consider what to do with his legacy.

Robert S. McNamara's 1996 book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam provokes some of the same emotions as Ajax. In it, we discover a McNamara who's relentlessly, pitilessly rational: the efficiency expert who became president of the Ford Motor Company and transplanted his devotion to quantifiable performance improvements from the world of sales to the theater of war. In my youth, the conventional wisdom was that McNamara was an establishment wonk leading the easily gulled LBJ down a blind alley, a white-shoe number-cruncher who couldn't admit he had made a mistake. And there is no doubt that McNamara is that character--but from the evidence offered in In Retrospect, McNamara is a latter-day Ajax as well. The book's McNamara is a complex admixture of idealism, ambition, and willful blindness who tells himself that if he quits or offends Johnson, he'll be replaced by a hard-liner (or an intellectual inferior). He contents himself with dreams that Bobby Kennedy will be president in '68 and that history will then remember McNamara as an architect of peace. His wife and children suffer as old women confront him in restaurants and spit in his face. And for decades, McNamara, who knew better, held his tongue--until, like Sophocles' noble antihero, the guilt surrounded him like a family of ghosts.

The subtitle that Errol Morris has given to his film The Fog of War is Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, and the structure of the movie is an ironic take on the kind of CEO self-help books hawked in airports. Morris cut down 20 hours of interviews with McNamara into two; and somewhere along that path, the self-contradicting currents of office politics, character flaws, and overdeveloped strengths, of technological change and cultural incomprehension were filtered out of sight. Thus The Fog of War becomes the apotheosis of Morris's career-long project: the conversion of bloodstained history into a spooky, oracular, ironically kitschy art object. Here, Morris doesn't have to fry the small potatoes of a two-bit Texas killer or a crackpot Holocaust denier: He gets to hire Philip Glass to fiddle while the 20th century burns.

Glass's musical signature--heaving and sighing arpeggios that gather in loops and accumulate an oceanic weight--is ideal for movies about natural processes. It brings the audience close to the Dalai Lama's acceptance of the folly of violence in Martin Scorsese's Kundun and seams together the life and fiction of the hero in Paul Schrader's Mishima. But applying Glass to the life and work of Robert McNamara amounts to a disastrous interpretation of the material. Whether Morris intends it or not (and I have a feeling he does intend it), the apparent timelessness and circularity of Glass's music depoliticizes the McNamara story. The folly of Vietnam (not to mention McNamara's apprentice role in Gen. Curtis LeMay's firebombing of Tokyo during World War II) becomes not the product of culturally predetermined misunderstanding or systemic callousness, but another artifact of Morris's tired theme: the Unknowability of All Things.

Unlike the makers of the recent Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary, who used a deliberately flat, Warholian talking-head style to produce a beautifully diverse series of emotional and historical resonances, Morris gilds the material with the creepy-slick style he applies to television commercials and the sexy cutaway spots he contrived for the 2002 Academy Awards. When McNamara sucks up to a cataclysmically pigheaded and vain LBJ on the phone, Morris gives us high-end shots of dominoes falling across a map of Southeast Asia. Stock footage from the '40s and '50s is exaggerated in its unselfconscious silliness and takes on a Stepford Wives clamminess. The result of Morris's aestheticizing glaze is to imply that the "fog of war" McNamara describes here--the way in which armed conflict is too complex for human intelligence to grasp--is an existential given, a cosmic car crash, a crummy April Fools' joke from God; there's nothing to do but wonder at the awesome cruelty and inscrutability of that condition. Morris has painstakingly underlined the connections between the defense departments of McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, and between our quicksand-like commitments 40 years ago and now. So how could he possibly be unaware that the feeling of well-informed awe and helplessness he labors to evoke precisely mirrors the relationship of the American people to the occupation of Iraq? Or that he himself is contributing to the paralysis?

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