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Past Article

Errol Morris, Robert McNamara and The Fog of War
By Nina Rehfeld
July 7, 2003 - 3:28 PM PDT

"It's the contrarian in me."

It's one of the most famous anecdotes in film history. When Errol Morris launched his career as a documentary filmmaker, Werner Herzog ate his shoe. Seriously. Sautéed with a bit of garlic, the works. And all caught on film by Les Blank in the appropriately titled short, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.

See, what happened was... Morris was studying under Herzog at Berkeley when he announced that he wanted to make a feature length doc on pet cemeteries. Herzog blurted, without a second thought, that if Morris managed to pull it off, he'd, well, you know. Eat his shoe. Morris pulled it off alright, and Gates of Heaven remains one of those American classics we very much need to see released on DVD some day. Like most of Morris's work. While there's a collection of material to explore, wonderfully hand-picked, at Morris's site, we are fortunate to have on DVD the delightful Fast, Cheap & Out of Control and the dark but engaging Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter. But we're still missing Vernon, Florida ("philosophical slapstick," David Ansen called it in Newsweek, "a film as odd and mysterious as its subjects, and quite unforgettable"), A Brief History of Time, the film that interweaves a biography of Stephen Hawking with an accessible examination of the ground-breaking physicist's ideas, and, perhaps most significantly, The Thin Blue Line.

Significant because Blue Line, by including staged reconstructions of crucial events in its story, challenged the notion of what a documentary could be. And do. Morris himself has called it "the first murder mystery that actually solves a murder." The project came about when his filmmaking career was stalled and he'd taken a job as a private investigator. "Two careers intersected," John Pierson writes in Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes. "Errol Morris director met Errol Morris detective just in time to return to filmmaking and clear an innocent man who had been on death row."

And now he's turned his attention to a widely hated figure of 20th century history. You don't have to be much of a detective yourself to see how much sympathy Morris has developed for Robert S. McNamara, the man many see as one of the prime architects of the catastrophe that was America's involvement in and escalation of the war in Vietnam. But McNamara has been famously evaluating and reevaluating that war and the policies that turned it into a costly quagmire, writing, for example, "We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation. We made our decisions in light of those values. Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why."

Prime Morris material. When Nina Rehfeld returned from Cannes with a fresh batch of interviews, this was the one that leapt out immediately. While The Fog of War will have a limited engagement at the end of this year and won't see wide release in the US until early next year, we hope that this conversation will help generate a bit of word-of-mouth anticipation, the sort that might get it into a few more theaters, maybe a broader audience, and eventually, of course, a decent release on DVD.

Four decades back: Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and President John F. Kennedy

What attracts you about a subject? You've found so many different subjects over the years.

I like the fact that Robert McNamara is hated by so many people. It's the contrarian in me. And I am fascinated for the reason that he is hated. It's a fascinating story in and of itself. You have thousands of people who are worth hating who, in fact, aren't hated at all. [laughs]

What made you decide to make this film now? Did you want to have an impact on the current political discussion or is it simply the portrait of a single person?

I don't think it's either. I certainly had current politics in mind while I was making the movie but that's not the reason I chose to make the movie at this time. Many people who've seen the movie or saw the movie in the course of my putting it together and editing it said, "This movie should be out now. This movie is so relevant to what is going on in the world today that many people should be able to see this movie."

But that's a result of many issues in the film being issues that have come up again and again and again and again. Issues about self-deception, about conflict. And regrettably, they will be as current today as they will be six months from now or a year from now or a much longer period of time. So the reason for making the movie... there are so many reasons for making a movie like this. My interest in interviewing McNamara comes from a book that he wrote in 1995, In Retrospect. The book is his attempt to explain why Vietnam happened. Sometimes it's referred to as a confession or a mea culpa. I don't believe it's either.

The book fascinated me. He's published two more books in the intervening years, a book about going to Vietnam and discussing Vietnam with his counterparts at the time of the war in the 1960s. And then, a third book, Wilson's Ghost, which contains some of the themes that are in the current movie. The books triggered my interest, but the movie itself is quite different again from the books. It's not an attempt to turn a book into a movie. There are surprising things that came out in the movie which, of course, are new, that are not in the books.

For example?

For example, the firebombing of Japan. This story that he tells very early on in the movie about the destruction of the Japanese cities. It's a very powerful story almost lost to history. It's a story I myself did not know about, a story that is interesting because this is World War II. And aren't we supposed to think that World War II is a morally unambiguous war? Isn't World War II "the good war"?

Well, that's probably the American standpoint. From a German point of view, yes, it is the "good one," but you also have so many people that have been lost, so many cities destroyed, so many families suffering. You, too, probably, coming from London. There was so much destruction and pain that it's not just "the good war" for us.

Well, you know, to play devil's advocate, would you have preferred that Hitler not be defeated?

No, but the ambiguity is already known to us. Millions of people, some of whom were even opposed to Hitler, had to die.

I find very, very interesting these famous diaries by a Jewish professor trapped in Dresden during the fire raids, Victor Klemperer... The raids were indiscriminate. It wasn't as if they targeted Nazis rather than Jews or soldiers rather than civilians. They killed everybody. It's become a feature of modern warfare that civilians are inevitably involved, that fighting is no longer between armies. But that it's total war, involving everybody.

Someone said to me, not so long ago, "Is it because we lost the war in Vietnam, quote-unquote, that we have become obsessed with our conduct during the war?" The specifics of what we did. And because we won World War II, somehow there's no need to examine our conduct. After all, the goal is to win the war. We won the war. Too bad... bad things happen in war. War is cruelty, as McNamara quotes General Sherman in The Fog of War. But what he does, which I think is exceptional and interesting, he does raise that question. Are there things that are just simply impermissible? Things that are wrong? Morally wrong in war, regardless of whether you win or lose. And the firebombing of Japan becomes his way into that issue. And it's a very powerful issue.

It seems that he's quite frank here, for example, when it comes to the Cuban Missile Crisis, he says it was luck, basically, that kept the world from destruction as opposed to the way it's depicted in Thirteen Days. Where you surprised by his... frankness, shall we say?

I'm always fascinated when stories diverge so markedly from what we expect them to be. The Cuban Missile Crisis is just one example among many, many examples. A fascinating example. I just read very recently the new biography of [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev, which is fascinating because it tells the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis from the Soviet side. And what is so interesting - and we don't usually think in these terms, but it's so much a part of McNamara's account - is we get confused. We don't have the correct information. We have incorrect information. Faulty information. The CIA reports, "Well, no need to worry. No warheads on Cuba. They're coming on the ship, the Votava. Let's intercept these Soviet ships, we'll be fine. If necessary, we'll go in, we'll take 'em out. They don't have the weapons yet. We'll invade, we'll bomb, tra-la-la. We'll be ok..."

That was really scary. The scene where the guy's on the radio and he says, "Are you sure?" And he hears, "Yeah... I think." These guys are sitting there with the atomic bomb under their fingers! And they're chatting like little boys.

Oh, yeah. I think it's one of the powerful things about the movie that you're brought directly into these conversations. It's not people talking at some distance about this or that. You're actually hearing the President of the United States talking to McNamara. Or hearing the commanders of the Pacific fleet talking, the captains of the destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin about what the hell is going on. And there's this realization that we're all screwed up!

Where'd you find those tapes?

These tapes are all publicly available, believe it or not.

Why haven't they been revealed before?

Some have. Some have only recently been declassified. The Johnson tapes are very, very recently declassified. Some people have not made quite the same use of them that I have. You know, the movie Thirteen Days gives you the feeling that everything is under control. Yeah, there's a lot of tension here and a lot of tension there, but the Kennedys and their advisors are going to pull this thing out nicely in the end. Absent is the misinformation. Absent is the fact that the Soviet commanders had authority to retaliate with tactical nuclear weapons. Absent is Castro's urging Khrushchev to retaliate against the United States. It's quite an amazing story. In this biography, it's not part of my movie, but in the biography, Khrushchev was appalled! As McNamara is appalled. Khrushchev is appalled: Now, wait a second. I put the missiles in to prevent the United States from invading Cuba, not so that we could invade the United States! Castro, as McNamara says, was willing to, quote-unquote, pull the temple down on his head.

"Tricky." >>>

"It's the contrarian in me."

back to past articles


Nina Rehfeld
A freelance journalist based in Berlin, Nina Rehfeld's reviews, interviews and articles have been published in several major German papers and magazines. For more info, see the Kulturbotschaft.

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