Conflict Of Interest: One Film, Two Takes

After two screenings of The Fog of War, I have come away not wondering about McNamara's guilt, but asking, What did Errol Morris know and when did he know it? Morris seems to have been so intent on forwarding his now-dated thesis--that rationality is unequal to the task of assessing the real and acting upon it ethically--that he missed the drama of McNamara's story and let his subject get away with softballs. The extra pressure applied to McNamara in the latter section of the movie suggests that Morris, like his subject, knew that he blew it, but couldn't own up and unsuccessfully tried to cover his tracks. In a hilarious moment of inadvertent self-exposure, Morris attempts to get McNamara to confess his guilt in an "epilogue," and, being thwarted in that attempt, proceeds to photograph his protagonist in a series of profoundly unflattering compositions.

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'

McNamara has owned up to more than any political figure of his generation, or the one after his. And yet Americans continue to seek the narrative of contrition and potential reconstitution: We reserve the right to exercise our Baseball Hall of Fame or kick-you-off-the-island privileges--depending on how convincing your performance is. We want to hear McNamara's personal regrets, though his insights into the conditioned blind spots of his career are more instructive. At the risk of sounding like the heroine of Wallace Shawn's Aunt Dan and Lemon, it rankles me that so many writers who frequently earn their keep by essaying the relative merits of Hilary Duff movies have deigned to review the life and soul of Robert McNamara--and point their thumbs down. The Fog of War doesn't give us any compass with which to navigate the interior life of its subject--except in a moment when McNamara breaks down while recalling LeMay's grief over the death of a fighter
pilot's wingman. McNamara's barely suppressed remorse over his role in the deaths of many other wingmen is deeply moving and begs a Sophoclean question: How do you say you're sorry when you made a holocaust? The answer is nowhere to be found in Morris's profoundly offensive and inhuman film.

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