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A fresh view of the 'bad guy'

Documentary maker Errol Morris examines key Vietnam figure Robert McNamara and encounters a complex reality.

May 23, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

CANNES, France — Errol Morris knows reality. Making singular documentaries such as "A Thin Blue Line" and "Fast, Cheap & Out of Control" for 25 years does that for you. And what he knows is that reality is a lot more nuanced and complicated, a lot more troubling, than we are ready to accept.

"We like to think of the world in terms of good and evil, it makes it more tractable," the filmmaker says in his quietly confident way. "Otherwise it's far more difficult to deal with -- and it's problematic as it is."

This is not just a theoretical position for Morris, but rather at the heart of his latest film, "The Fog of War," which premiered here. Subtitled "Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert McNamara," this examination of the experiences and thoughts of the Vietnam-era secretary of Defense is everything we've come to expect from Morris at his best: smart, unexpected, compelling and completely fascinating. Also, as is not unusual for the filmmaker, it's sure to be controversial. (The film will be distributed by Sony Picture Classics but no release date has been set.).

"The easy thing to say would be 'Robert McNamara is a bad guy, he did all these bad things,' but this perceived view about him and his conduct during the war does not square with either the man I know today or the things I've found out about him through my investigation," Morris says. "Robert McNamara is not the uber-hawk, the main instigator of the Vietnam War. I realized pretty quickly it just doesn't work that way. This is not to say he's blameless or absolved of responsibility for what he's done, but that the story is far more complex and far more interesting than I imagined."

Morris has wanted to do a film on McNamara, who will be 87 next month, ever since he read his memoir, "In Retrospect," in 1995. "I found that the book being described in reviews was very different than the book I was reading," he explains. "It was called a mea culpa, a confession, but I don't think it's either. I think it's his retrospective attempt to understand how it all happened. It was tortured."

Intrigued, Morris contacted the author and, "reluctantly, over time," he agreed to sit still for 20-plus hours of interviews that form the heart of a thoughtful and intelligent examination of a complex man and a nation's drive toward war.

McNamara agreed despite the fact that he knew Morris demonstrated against American involvement in Vietnam during his undergraduate days at the University of Wisconsin. "My feelings about the war have not changed at all over the years," says the 55-year-old Morris. "I thought it was immoral and horrific then and I still do now."

Making a 'one-voice film'

Given this, the filmmaker, who says, "I worry about almost everything all the time," had special qualms about this project. "I worried, and I think for good reason -- that's the self-serving axiom of worry -- that because McNamara was so often demonized in the press, any attempt to humanize him would be viewed unfavorably." Morris persevered, however, for a pair of reasons.

First is Morris' ongoing quest, "a desire to reinvent the nature of the documentary. What I did not want this film to be is another version of stuff we have seen many, many times; it would be a great disaster if it turned out to be something that could be seen on the History Channel. I wanted to do something very different."

For starters, Morris decided against having anyone else on camera but McNamara, to make what he calls "a one-voice film. The danger is, 'How does that become impartial?' The answer is, it doesn't, it doesn't even have the pretense. What it does is take you inside someone's head. It's part dream, part history, part self-analysis, part self-justification, part mystery.

"People say nothing can redeem McNamara's conduct during the war, and maybe that's true. But the fact is he's trying to grapple with who he is, trying to come to an understanding of himself and the world. And just because there is one voice, that doesn't mean I wasn't hard on him, it doesn't mean the voice is left alone in some uncritical way."

In traditional Morris fashion, "Fog of War" surrounds McNamara's words with all manner of arresting elements, from archival footage ("I tried very hard to use stuff that was not familiar") to elegantly shot visuals including dominoes falling on a map of Asia and Cadillac tail fins ("fetish objects are always welcome") to a spooky Philip Glass score. "I once told Philip," Morris says with a grin, "that he does existential dread better than anybody."

"Fog of War" also benefits from newly released White House telephone tapes. So when McNamara says he was in favor of withdrawing advisors while John F. Kennedy was president, you don't have to take his word for it, you can hear him telling Kennedy and then hear the next president, Lyndon Johnson, berating him in typically Johnsonian fashion for the temerity of that idea.

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