Directed by Errol Morris

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics


What responsibilities does making a film about a real person entail? Condescension and complicity are the two poles to avoid. Given American indie  directors and hip audiences’ snarky tendencies, the former is the far more common fault. Errol Morris has been accused of it in the past, particularly for GATES OF HEAVEN, a 1978 documentary about pet cemeteries and their owners. However, his eye has grown less judgmental as his work has progressed. His last film, MR. DEATH, showed a surprising amount of sympathy for Fred Leuchter, an engineer who tried “disproving” the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz. In Catholic terminology, Morris succeeded in hating the sin but loving the sinner. His TV series, FIRST PERSON, gave his (usually eccentric) subjects a fair platform. Morris’ blandest fllm, A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME, was made about his most honorable subject, Stephen Hawking. THE FOG OF WAR, which centers on former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, suffers from a reluctance to push too far.

The film is structured as a series of 11 lessons - quotes from McNamara presented as intertitles - and epilogue. Jumping around in time, it spends almost all of its length on the first half of McNamara’s life. His early years are briefly sketched in. His first memory, at age 2, was the sight of soldiers returning from World War I. Entering college at the height of the Depression, he attended Berkeley and Harvard. After graduation and service in World War II, he worked at Ford, where he helped develop the seatbelt. Serving as president of the company, he quit after 5 weeks when Robert Kennedy asked him to join his brother’s cabinet. While in office, he oversaw the Cuban Missile Crisis and the start of the Vietnam War.

Having criticized documentaries in the past for generally lacking visual style, I feel weird criticizing THE FOG OF WAR for striving too hard for one.  Especially in FAST, CHEAP & OUT OF CONTROL,  Morris’ combination of interviews, archival and found footage and music (composed by Philip Glass this time around) can be quite poetic. Here, such effects fall flat. The constant repetition of a propulsive, string-driven Glass riff eventually feels lazy. Morris literally demonstrates the Cold War concept of domino countries  by spreading dominoes over a map of Asia and knocking them over. He must be quite proud of this image, since he comes back to it several times. Less seriously, the constant use of jump cuts and tilted angles during interviews with McNamara, who is often framed at the far left or right of the screen, don’t harm the film, but their purpose remains elusive. Morris seems to be showing off for the sake of demonstrating his visual chops. This is one case where less would have been more.

As a journalist, Morris gets a few scoops. Most compellingly, McNamara admits that had the U.S. lost World War II, he and General Curtis Lemay could have been prosecuted for war crimes for the firebombing of Japan. A prelude to the use of nuclear weapons (also ordered by Lemay), it killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, decimating many cities. (51% of Tokyo was destroyed during the war.) However, McNamara often foists responsibility onto others, like Lemay or Lyndon B. Johnson. He offers tantalizing hints about his personal life, opining that his job as Secretary of Defense may have contributed to his wife’s death and his son’s ulcers but mysteriously adding that it also benefited his family. He shows vulnerability only when discussing JFK’s death. McNamara is garrulous, articulate and likable, but he keeps his distance from the camera. Until the epilogue, Morris obliges by refraining from asking tough questions.

Morris has made extremely ambitious films before. Implicitly, FAST, CHEAP & OUT OF CONTROL delved into metaphysical questions that brought it closer to 2001:A SPACE ODYSSEY or Andrei Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS than most documentaries, even his own. With THE FOG OF WAR, his style doesn’t seem to suit the subject. The portion of McNamara’s life covered in the film runs over a third of the 20th century. He was there at several key turning points in American history. It’s potentially an epic story, rather than one best treated with t clumsy metaphors and oddly framed interviews. With THE THIN BLUE LINE and FAST, CHEAP & OUT OF CONTROL, Morris was able to create a form that opened up the wider implications of his subjects. Here, he’s made a film that looks unconventional but doesn’t delve much deeper than a History Channel program.