The Fog of War - Errol Morris 2003 USA

, 2006-07-30

The Fog of War - Errol Morris 2003 USA Seen Tyneside Cinema Newcastle UK

The Fog of War - Errol Morris 2003 USA

Seen Tyneside Cinema Newcastle UK

I think that the Fog of Film is a good alternative title for this movie.  Film technically becomes fogged if exposed to light before going through the gate of the camera; artistically film gets fogged when the marketing intentions of the film makers delimits or distorts the light they can throw on the subject. 

At the core of this film there is a deeply ingrained dishonesty, in which the film’s structure and presentation confer a protective halo over the person of  Robert McNamara (US secretary of Defense 1961-67).   Whatever ‘mistakes’  McNamara admits to on camera such as the US declaration of war on North Vietnam and the subsequent carpet bombing of Vietnamese civilian populations, the film as vehicle transposes and elides these acts and omissions into mistakes, understandable mistakes rather than the consequence of deeper malaise in an empire out of control.  The interview of McNamara’s with its artsy framing, tasteful background, continuous jump cuts, slick computer graphics and archive footage represents the triumph of style over substance.

The USA as a deeply conservative and conformist consumer society has developed a culture that validates and evaluates reality through appraisal of image.  The concerns of the makers of visual products  are often to control and validate outer expressive gestures tokens and  signs at the cost of disregarding inner meaning.  This predominant concern with image and style at the expense of a concern to seek out the truth is particularly disturbing in documentary film about such a key figure in the development of US foreign policy.  But it is perhaps an inevitable concomitant of the featurisation of documentary films which now  pitch in the market of the large corporations to attract investment, either at the production or distribution end of the process.   The fog of film.

In Errol Morris’ film some of McNamara’s insights about what was happening in Vietnam have salience for the American Empire’s contemporary foreign policy, but he doesn’t talk about the internal driving mechanism of policy - long term industry and military perspective.  He doesn’t want to, and he’s a man who only talks about what he wants to, on his terms.  Like a written or unwritten contract.  But the result is that the overwhelming impression left of McNamara, is of McNamara as image.   The old senator, the Avatar who has achieved wisdom, the survivor who has a message for us from the past.   This image however is communicated not just through the form of the film  - the intercut interview - the settings - the cutting - but through its structure. The Fog of War is structured as “Ten Lessons and an Epilogue”  which leads the viewer of the film towards a quasi pedagogique reading with strong religious overtones.  This structure gives to McNamara an aura of the wise one and induces an inclination towards reverence, an inclination reinforced by the soundtrack.   

It was the Philip Glass score that alerted me to the nature of this film as a marketing device selling Robert McNamara rather than an instrument trying to seek truth.  Glass’ piece is a very classy  contemporary score, restrained almost to a fault, mixing interesting percussive effects with moody modal sequenciations.  Like the music accompanying certain kinds of adverts it is designed to make the selling proposition easy to swallow. The music evens out the film providing a consistent emotional tonality to  the  roller coaster ride of events punctuated by assassination wars deaths and bombings.   The music works to unify the film in the same way that McNamara’s life is unified by his implicit claim to have attained wisdom as a reward for surviving.   The selling proposition in Fog of War is that this is a classy piece of film making about a classy subject matter, Robert McNamara one of the erstwhile rulers of the planet.  Meet the Avatar.  Once he was a cold murderous Secretary of State for defense in love with mass bombing as a solution as long as was efficient; the bombs sent by his hand were responsible for mass destruction and killing mainly of Vietnamese but others as well.  Now he is still cold but old and wise.  Old and wise.

The pedagogique structure of the film, with its use of  twee title cards informs us that he has attained the wisdom of age and has ten lessons and (of course) an epilogue to impart.  Most of this wisdom amounts to no more than the specious knowledge contained in self help books sold at supermarkets checkouts - ten steps to enlightenment.  McNamara’s wisdom amounts to turkey truisms dressed up in the fancy dress of the statesman:  Truisms such as: never say never; you can’t believe all you see…etc.  Morris might well reply that his objective was to reveal the vacuity and empty nature of McNamara’s wisdom by allowing the viewer to see and judge.  But the structure of the film,. its score, its lesson structure, its artsy framing of McNamara with classy light paneled background,  all these conspire to frame McNamara as a glossy image for reassuring consumption.  Like a reassuring public service announcement for the benefits of growing old.

In relation to this last point and the idea that perhaps Errol Morris was really giving us the viewers the material we needed to make up our minds,  I began to worry about all those little jump cuts in the master interviews.  They are the sort of cuts, the ones we take for granted these days where continuity is no longer an induced state of mind but an illusion.  In TV documentaries the  situation is that if the guy under interview hums haws stops or digresses whatever, they cut out whatever they don’t like to keep the pace up, to rock and roll with the meat of the story.  To cover obvious jumps in continuity, filmed interviews used to employ a device called the ‘cut away’ in order to literally cut away from the subject to another image, such as the interviewer nodding, and then cut back to the subject.  This presents the illusion of a continuous stream of sense.   Few film makers now bother with this laborious device, they just jump the cut; what we see is a funny little dissolve or a blip in the picture.  Given that this convention is accepted, the effect is the same: to make the subject(in this case McNamara) appear fluid and controlled in intelligence: more fluent and focused than people in general are able to speak… erm…ummmm….long silence(prompt).  All the little hesitations, all those signs of the fallibility of age, lapses of memory, all losing of the thread of thought, the meaningless digressions, are in effect censored.   The point is that there were a lot of these jump cuts. I don’t know what or how much lies on the cutting room floor; I can only hazard a guess based on the observation that at times in the interview there were scarce 10 seconds passed without the characteristic little blip of the jump cut.  The end result of this approach is McNamara is rendered by the Fog of War as an image:  cut out all the crap and you’re left with the image of McNamara as a fallible but articulate old man who has attained wisdom in his old age.   The trouble with such a filmic approach is that it starts to say less and less about the subject - McNamara in this case - than it does about the conceit of the film maker.

Robert McNamara tells how before accepting the post of Secretary for Defense he insisted to Robert Kennedy that he write his own contract.  I can’t imagine that he insisted on a similar contract arrangement with Errol Morris.  But perhaps he didn’t need to; because it was evident that Morris was going to make a high gloss film based on marketing led production values.  Given the evident nature of the intended film, whatever the form of final product Robert McNamara knew that Robert McNamara’s image could only be enhanced as the subject of such a product.   Adrin Neatrour 8 July 04