Living In A Fog

In The Fog Of War, Documentarian Errol Morris Paints The 20th Century As An Era Of Confused Aggression

TORONTO--When Errol Morris interviews subjects like former U.S. secretary of defense Robert McNamara, he starts by ushering them into a machine called the Interrotron. Although it has the ominous sci-fi sound of something the American military might use to question suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay, Morris's creation is a modified set of TelePrompTers. The interview subject stares into the camera and sees the face of Morris asking questions as Morris looks back through the screen at his subject. "The premise is that the way people use language, the way they express themselves, provides a key to how they themselves see the world," Morris says.

"Before I started using the Interrotron, every single filmed interview was based on a kind of cinema-vérité approach. Basically, if there are two people--if we're talking and someone is filming an interview of us--the camera's off to the side observing us while I look at you or you look at me. The camera doesn't see that. The camera is in a third place altogether. And I imagined an interview where the camera was me--where we were one and the same, if you like--so that when you made eye contact with me, you were making eye contact with the camera."

The Interrotron must have felt like a second home to the 87-year-old McNamara as he settled in to share his thoughts on Vietnam and the U.S. military for Morris's Oscar-nominated documentary The Fog of War, opening in Vancouver on Friday (February 6).

Since Morris speaks not just in complete paragraphs, but precisely phrased New York Times op-eds, let's pretend he's on the other side of the Interrotron. He's on a couch in a standard Toronto hotel room. It's not his hotel room, just a room where he's doing dozens of interviews as part of his promotional duties for the film's debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in fall 2003. The only other person there is his interviewer.

Morris looks slightly ruffled in a professor-with-tenure way: he's dressed in khaki pants, a sage-green work shirt, and green-grey sneakers. He talks like a professor with tenure, too. There are no ums in his speech, but there are plenty of long pauses as he chooses his words so carefully it's like he's looking them over in his mind's eye before presenting them.

The obvious question for the director who investigated and solved a murder in The Thin Blue Line (1988), examined and exhumed pet cemeteries in Gates of Heaven (1978), and explored capital punishment and Holocaust denial in Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999) is what drew him to McNamara. "McNamara, perhaps more than any other person I can think of, embodies the 20th century, with all of its contradictions and insanities," Morris says.

"Here you have a man who remembers Armistice Day, 1918, all the way through to the present time. It's pretty remarkable. And like [Woody Allen's Leonard] Zelig, he was present at endlessly significant events of the 20th century. But unlike Zelig, he wasn't a peripheral character who just happened to be in the crowd. Often he was a major player. He was at the centre of things. There's things that are not even in the movie that amazed me. He was in Berlin at the time that the Nazis invaded Poland. He was in Shanghai when the Japanese--one of the first instances of bombing of civilians from the air--when the Japanese attacked Shanghai in their conquest of the Chinese mainland. So it's a life that really includes so much of 20th-century history."

So when did Morris first become interested in McNamara? "It goes back to the beginnings of the Vietnam war. I demonstrated against the war as a student--after McNamara's time. I started demonstrating in '68 and '69, and
McNamara left office at the beginning of 1968. So there's no real overlap except that I was very much aware of McNamara and I remember reading these articles by I. F. Stone which appeared in the New York Review of Books about the Gulf of Tonkin incidents and the conjecture, of course, that they were a trumped-up excuse for expanding the war."

Did making the film change his views? "I don't know if it made me change my view of politics in general, but it certainly made me change my view of McNamara.

"With McNamara I had a number of beliefs about him that are the received views about him. I was just talking about the Path to War, which was this HBO movie where Alec Baldwin played McNamara. And the movie repeats the same thesis. I sometimes call it the Halberstam thesis, because it is so brilliantly expressed in The Best and the Brightest that [David] Halberstam wrote, about the various gifted people that took us into the Vietnam War. But the thesis very simply is that McNamara was a number cruncher, a statistician, an efficiency expert, but a man who was devoid of ethical sensibilities, who was a hawk and then belatedly a dove when it was too late. Well, the recordings from the Oval Office tell a very different story. I'm sorry, but they just simply do.

"They tell a story of McNamara urging President Kennedy to remove the military advisers from Vietnam. They show not a confused or vacillatory President Johnson being urged to commit to war by McNamara; they show something much much closer to the exact opposite of that." Morris clearly loved listening to the recently declassified audiotapes of Vietnam-era White House conversations that are layered into his film and urges people to buy a newly published book of transcripts.

"I learned a lot of things in the course of making the movie that are different from the received views of these stories. I mean, journalists on the left have always believed that the Tonkin Bay incidents were fabricated--or if they weren't fabricated, they were provoked and that they provided an excuse for expanding the war, nothing more, nothing less. The whole argument that they were the cause of the expansion of the war was wrong." And here Morris takes an especially long pause before continuing. "It is interesting to listen to the tapes of those generals talking. And to me it's pretty clear that there was great confusion in the gulf.

"Conspiracy a way, it provides a certain kind of solace. You think 'Oh well, all of the bad guys got together and they conspired to do something really truly evil.' But it's a much more frightening spectacle to imagine people confused, acting at cross-purposes with each other, confabulating. That history, rather than being directed, seems to be a record of human confusion coupled with human aggression."

What draws Morris to a story? He replies with his only sound bite--size answer. "Just that it interests me. Nothing more than that."

But there has to be something else. Is it the politics that draws him into the personalities he makes his films about or the personalities that draw him into the politics? "I would say that I'm interested in personalities first and foremost. If I set out to make a movie about the 20th century it would never have worked, but making a movie about McNamara is something very, very different," he says.

Despite the film's timely theme, Morris says it wasn't sparked by the present state of American politics. "Oddly enough, as I was making the movie its topicality, its relevance, became more and more apparent. It wasn't apparent at the outset. Don't forget that this movie was started before Afghanistan, before Iraq, and that the surprising thing is that the movie--every day, without it ever attempting to do so--becomes more and more deeply relevant to contemporary history."