Morris on McNamara

His documentary may be called The Fog Of War, but Errol Morris says his subject is as sharp as ever


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THE fog of war: Eleven lessons from the life of robert s. mcnamara directed and written by Errol Morris, produced by Morris, Julie Bilson Ahlberg and Michael Williams, with Robert McNamara. 95 minutes. A Sony Pictures Classic/Mongrel Media release. Opens Friday (February 6). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 95. Rating: NNNN

Director Errol Morris is renowned for his ability to stare at something until it gives up its secrets. That devotional gaze means that his least-seen film, Vernon, Florida, appears to be about nothing but a small town but winds up being his most interesting work, simply because it unfolds without an apparent agenda.

Which is not to knock his better- known films. The Thin Blue Line got a man out of prison, A Brief History Of Time is a fascinating portrait of Stephen Hawking, a genius trapped in a fragile body, and Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. delineates the limitless capacity for self-delusion of the man who designs machinery for the purpose of execution.

The perfect counterbalance to Mr. Death is The Fog Of War: Eleven Lessons From The Life Of Robert S. McNamara, a series of interview scenes with the iciest of the best and the brightest, secretary of defence under presidents Kennedy and Johnson and architect of America’s military adventure in Southeast Asia.

At 85, McNamara is razor-sharp, articulate and has a striking understanding of his own place in history. And when confronted by an uncomfortable question, he can tap dance remarkably well for a man his age.

I’m talking to Morris at the Toronto International Film Festival, where The Fog Of War has had its Canadian premiere. He was also in the midst of preparing the DVD version of the film.

He’s still not sure why McNamara subjected himself to more than 20 hours of interviews with a filmmaker almost constitutionally opposed to his political history.

“I asked, he accepted. He’d been on a book tour, and my hunch is that he did it as part of the tour. I invited him up to Cambridge, Massachusetts, which he loved.” Once a Harvard man….

For a long time, Morris had wanted to make a film that featured just one person talking.

“I was lucky to get McNamara. That he had his role in history, from the saturation bombing of Japan to Vietnam to the World Bank, means that the film can explain how this one man sees the world, and that teaches us about how the world got where it is.

“He’s not just any man. He’s very smart and often eloquent.”

There’s no shortage of literature on McNamara, but one of Morris’s points is the fact that official bios often leave out key elements.

“I can’t believe the full-length bios contain so little mention of his relationship with General Curtis LeMay, which culminated in the destruction of Japan. I don’t mean the atomic bomb. By the time atomic weapons were dropped, the U.S. had already destroyed Japan.

“We think of World War II as a just war where the moral lines were clearly drawn, but in the film we get to hear McNamara discuss the possibility of Allied war crimes in the execution of the war. Perhaps buried there is one of the reasons why America has refused to support international law on war crimes.”

We seldom get to listen to someone whose life has had such an impact on history. The encyclopedic McNamara epitomizes the American imperial impulse over the last 60 years. He may not be sympathetic, particularly in light of his hindsight suggestion that just maybe Kennedy and Johnson (and McNamara himself) were wrong about the domino theory in Vietnam, but he’s undeniably fascinating.

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