You can tell that this is an Errol Morris documentary because it isn’t boring, even though it’s essentially two long interviews with Robert S. McNamara, former secretary of defense under Kennedy and Johnson, focusing on his experience in WWII and as a Vietnam War policy maker. And while this isn’t necessarily a boring topic — McNamara was a controversial figure during a controversial war — it’s also no guarantee that a long interview can be made into an interesting cinematic experience. If you have an ongoing interest in the subject, then fine, but if not then it probably sounds like something that should be good for you, like those unexciting foods you’re suppose to eat at least once a day.
All this is rendered moot by Morris’ patented style, an approach that came to full flower with his last two documentaries, Mr Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred Leuchter Jr. and Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. In The Fog of War he conveys a nearly constant sense of motion, underlined by a pulsating score by Philip Glass, a composer whom Morris has said excels at conveying “existential dread.” The interview footage of McNamara was shot with a device the director created which allows the interviewee to address the camera directly. He then shoots McNamara from various angles and tightens the interview with frequent jump cuts (edits that move the action forward in time while maintaining the same shot).
He also intersperses the footage with archival material and original visual corollaries. When Morris plays a tape of a conversation between LBJ and McNamara, during which the president asks for some kind of précis of the Vietnam situation (this is March 1964), we’re shown a close-up of an old reel-to-reel tape player, from different angles, once with a digital clock perched surreally nearby, then a shot of a long row of dominoes slowly collapsing on a huge map of Southeast Asia. This kind of thing is engaging at first but eventually — around the third time the dominoes are shown — it starts to feel like padding.
As far as substance goes, McNamara, now 85 and still possessed of a probing intelligence, comes across as neither ogre nor apologist. He seems like a man who’s troubled by his role in the Vietnam War but who still has enough faith in the rightness of governmental hierarchy to let himself, to some degree, off the hook. He was always, first and foremost, a dutiful man, someone who tried to serve his leader well. Which may be why his most unequivocal criticism is saved for an event during which he was a much more minor player, the fire bombing of Japan at the end of WWII. But whatever the war, McNamara’s ultimate message is that it’s all a hellish confusion and human nature never changes. Which is incredibly bleak but sounds about right.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday-Sunday, Jan. 23-25. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].