War! What Is It Good For? Errol Morris Finds Out With “Fog of War”
by Anthony Kaufman
Once you get Errol Morris going, he doesn’t mince words. After the North
American premiere of his latest film “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from
the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” Morris explained to a Toronto audience his
theory of human nature: “We’re fucked.”
When I asked Morris — the luminary nonfiction filmmaker responsible for
such landmark works as “Gates of Heaven” and “The Thin Blue Line” — to
elucidate on his premise, he explains, “For all practical purposes, we have
the same DNA that we had 10,000 years ago. Now let’s look at our destructive
capacities. It’s a lot different being hit with a coconut than being hit
with a hydrogen bomb. Our destructive capacities in the last 100 years have
increased millions upon millions fold, but our capacity to curb our
aggressive impulses have not grown proportionally. Does that auger well?”
“Fog of War” raises such issues, along with the usual Morrisian laundry list
of themes — such as “how we know what we know and our illusions of
certainty” — through an investigation into the life of Robert S. McNamara,
the former Secretary of Defense under the JFK and LBJ administrations. If
you’re too young to remember McNamara, he was one of the most hated men in
the ’60s, blamed for Vietnam, called an arrogant and cold-hearted
number-cruncher, and enemy #1 for both the American left and right. (But he
also pioneered seatbelts.)
As provocative and complex as Morris’ previous subjects — from physicist
Steven Hawking to “execution technologist” Fred A. Leuchter — McNamara is
many things to many people. And that’s probably why he’s such an ideal
figure for the investigative Morris to tackle, tease out, and ultimately,
never completely know.
“Fog of War” may also be the year’s most bracing indictment of the Bush
administration and the war in Iraq, by complete coincidence. (Morris began
shooting in 2000.) While he didn’t set out to make an anti-war film, Morris
doesn’t hesitate to criticize the current powers-that-be: “They would like a
new arms race. They would like new wars. Whether they want it or not, they
are in the process of destabilizing the world and eradicating much of the
progress of the last 50 years. Congratulations.”
Recently named the seventh best filmmaker in the world by British newspaper
The Guardian (tying with Abbas Kiarostami and Hayao Miyazaki), Errol Morris
spoke with indieWIRE contributor Anthony Kaufman on a number of separate
occasions about truth, death, interviews, and the Interrotron. The most
recent interview, conducted on the phone from Morris’ Cambridge offices,
took place as the director was working on a new commercial spot. Before we
addressed “Fog of War,” he had this to say about his parallel career: “Doing
commercials for Fortune 500 companies is not what I would call a way of
keeping oneself pure. But it is certainly a way to pay the rent.”
indieWIRE: I think you often share a lot of traits with your interview
subjects. What about McNamara? Do you feel like you are akin to him?
Errol Morris: McNamara is tortured by his past. And wonders who he is. My
favorite line in David Lynch’s “Elephant Man” is Anthony Hopkin’s character,
at one point, says, “Am I good man or a bad man?” And it’s a central
question in my life and it’s a central question in McNamara’s life. What
does my life mean? What have I done? What haven’t I done? Am I a good man or
a bad man? There’s something very moving about McNamara wrestling with his
past. There are so many public figures from that same period in history that
I don’t believe share that same kind of agony. People have said to me that
McNamara is vain, self-congratulatory, self-deceived. All of that may be
true, and aren’t we all? And does that mean that he is not also filled with
genuine regret, even grief over the past. I like to set up a series of
puzzles and questions, and if they’re not answered completely, that’s OK.
iW: Do you think there’s some similarities between Fred J. Leuchter and
Robert S. McNamara. They’re both misunderstood men?
Morris: I would say yes and no. There are certainly big issues at stake in
both of the stories. And it’s certainly clear that in both of the stories,
the protagonist has a strong interest in seeing the story one way rather
than another. You could even, if you were uncharitable, call it a tandem
exercise in rewriting history. But I don’t want to say that. In the case of
Fred Leutcher, he is denying something for which there is overwhelming
evidence and one can say, you are wrong and you are mistaken.
McNamara is a very persnickety fellow. It’s really interesting: he doesn’t
want to say anything unless it can be corroborated by independent evidence.
I’ll give you an example. While writing his book, McNamara remembers telling
Kennedy to pull out all the advisers in Vietnam. But he can’t remember if he
actually did it, so he goes to the Kennedy Library and locates the tape
recording where he indeed tells Kennedy to pull out the advisors. And I use
it in “Fog of War” and it’s really powerful.
We always like to think of things in two models: A and B. In “The Thin Blue
Line,” it was A) Randall Adams seated in the car with David Harris at his
side verses B) David Harris alone in the car; Randall Adams at home in bed.
The problem with model A is that it’s false; it has that minor drawback. Why
is it false? It’s false in my view because there is powerful evidence to the
contrary. For “Fog of War,” Model B says Robert S. McNamara is a man of
enormous ethical and moral sensibilities who did not believe in this war
from the very beginning, but modified his views to serve his president. That
is what the evidence suggests to me.
I can’t help but admire Robert McNamara. Whether it’s futile, misguided,
self-serving, here is a man who devoted himself to trying to mitigate or
prevent war, a man who was involved in creating the limited test ban treaty,
a man who has advocated the creation of an international court to adjudicate
war crimes. I really admire him. I do not admire Fred Leuchter.
iW: I think there’s some misconceptions about “truth” in your work, where
some people think you’re all about subjectivity.
Morris: People get confused. I did this interview for Transom.org and I said
that truth is linguistic, and this was taken to mean that I somehow believe
that whether something is true or not is solely a matter of language. It’s
one of the reasons why I’m not terribly enthusiastic about conversations
that involve pictures and truth, because to me, a picture is neither true
nor false. It has no truth value. A sentence that says, “Randall Adams
killed a police officer” has truth value. It’s either true or false, and I
believe it’s true or false, and it’s not just a matter of thinking that
makes it true or false; it’s the relationship with language and the world,
in which real things happen. There is an underlying reality and a fact of
the matter. Truth isn’t up for grabs. Someone was seated in that car and
someone shot police officer Robert Wood. And in all likelihood, that was
Randall Adams or David Harris, and in all likelihood, it was David Harris,
and it’s not just thinking that makes it so, and it’s not as though it’s
unknowable. Maybe it’s not knowable with absolutely certainty, but it is
iW: Is there a relationship between your two fascinations: questions of
death and questions of how we know what we know.
Morris: The one thing you can say about death is that it’s infallible. It
happens to everybody. There’s that line about the death rate: it’s one death
per person. I would say that death is not so much related to various
epistemic concerns, it’s related to a feeling of despair and hopelessness.
There’s the famous exchange between Kafka and his friend Max Brod, where
Brod asks Kafka about hope, “Do you believe in hope, Franz?” And Kafka says,
“Yes, of course, but not for us.”
I think in all of my films there are these questions of how we know what we
know and our illusions of certainty, when in fact, we possess no such
certainty, at all. There are certainly moments in all my films that deal
with that very question, even in “The Fog of War,” McNamara asks the
question, “Are we omniscient?” And you hear this exchange of the commanders
in the Gulf of Tonkin, where they talk about, “Are you certain these events
occurred?” and he concludes, “Of course, I’m certain. I think.”
iW: I wanted to ask you some questions about the Interrotron. Since you’re a
talking head in the camera, like a teleprompter, isn’t there something
essentially dehumanizing about this?
Morris: No. The answer is a simple one. We think of technology working
counter to human intimacy. But in fact, that is not true. It’s a
simplification, and perhaps, just wrong. An example I always give is the
telephone. People say things to each other on the telephone that they might
not or couldn’t say to each other if they were sitting in the same room
together. But by limiting certain things, it makes other things possible,
other kinds of intimacy possible. I wanted to do my own ad campaign for AT&T
that said, “Being there is the next best thing to using the phone.” There’s
something better about the phone. I think it’s also true of the Interrotron
and the use of television images. Yes, there are certain things that are
taken away, but there are other kinds of intimacies that are made possible.
People have an easier time talking. Think of the people that I’ve
interviewed on this thing: Donald Trump, Mikhail Gorbachev, Walter Kronkite,
Iggy Pop, Al Sharpton, Robert McNamara, Fred Leuchter, and they went on for
hours. Some of the longest interviews I’ve ever done have been done on this
device. My Rick Rosner interview went on for close to 11 hours.
iW: Do you have a patent on the Interrotron?
Morris: We’ve applied, so there’s a patent pending on the Interrotron.
Someone came up to me recently, and said, there are several moments in “Fog
of War” that are unimaginable without the Interrotron. There’s that one
scene where McNamara is talking about war crimes in connection to the
firebombing of Japan. He stops talking and the camera moves, but he’s
looking right into the lens. And there’s voice over, where he asks that
question, “Why is it a war crime if you lose and not if you win?” In a case
like that, where there’s an important relationship with the subject, people
know I’m there, but it’s also very important that there be a direct
connection with McNamara and I believe there is. It goes back to this whole
question of eye contact. When a person is talking to you in a room, you’re
very much aware of eye contact. A person makes eye contact, he looks away,
he disconnects, he reconnects and makes eye contact again, and that has
enormous dramatic value. And the Interrotron duplicates that.
iW: Do you see any way to develop the Interrotron further?
Morris: I have. I’ve done things with moving key lights and with moving
cameras; I’ve done many different things with this principle. I’m still
playing with it, it still interests me.
iW: Do you think there is anything in your personality, in dealing with
people, that the Interrotron comes from?
Morris: Yeah, maybe it’s a certain awkwardness with people. Maybe it’s fear
of people. However, I started interviewing people before I became a
filmmaker. It comes out of some deep fascination with the relationship of
one person with another. And fascination with interviews. Interviews are
human relationships in a laboratory setting, and if you like, the
Interrotron formalizes that. I’ve also thought that since I talk so much
that interviewing is really wonderful because it’s a respite for talking.
I’m forced to listen, which I like. I think it comes out of a deep curiosity
about other people, and maybe about myself through other people.
iW: Do you think you’ll get tired of the Interrotron?
Morris: I’m tired of interviewing people, in general and that’s one of my
reasons for not wanting to make another film like this. I’m tired of it and
I’m not tired of it, because there are always people worth talking to. I
would go back to the other style of interviewing people, if there was a
reason for it. If you were trying to create that distance, if you were
trying to pull people away from the individual being interviewed and to show
the interviewing process. I believe all interviews without the Interrotron
are basically verite interviews, because you are that fly on the wall,
looking at two people talking. So do I have any objection shooting material
with a handheld camera? I don’t have any problem with that, at all. I have
nothing against it, given that I know there are other ways of doing things.
It’s just for a certain context. I could imagine myself not using the
Interrotron, but for most of what I do, I can’t.
For example, I do commercials all the time now. I worked with Radical Media
for four years and no one asked me to interview anybody. I worked with
actors. And then I did, by accident, this campaign for United Airlines after
9/11 and it was so successful.
My two careers as a filmmaker and a director of commercials exist
independently of each other; the people who know my films don’t really know
my commercials and vice versa. So all of a sudden, the advertising world
discovered that I could interview people. Then I did the Academy Award film
[the four minute short that opened the 2002 Academy Awards and featured
about 100 people talking about their favorite films] and then I was hired by
Steve Jobs to do all the Apple advertising, which I was not completely happy
with. More and more, I’m demanding I do the editing in advertising. When I
did McNamara, would I send it out to an editor? Of course not. I’m an
editor. I spend a lot of time in front of AVIDs editing, so it’s becoming
more important that I do the editing for the advertising work, and
occasionally I use the Interrotron, like I did for United and Apple. But I
also did this series of commercials for ESPN that ran on the Superbowl last
year and they were done with a handheld camera on the street. It’s just a
technique; it’s part of my grab bag of tricks.
iW: What are you going to do next?
Morris: I want to do something different. I would love to do something with
actors and a script — but not traditional Hollywood stuff. If I’ve pushed
documentary in a direction towards the sorts of things that exist in drama
or fiction films, I’d like to try to push fiction or material with actors. I
still haven’t seen “American Splendor.” I’ve been remiss. There’s a number
of projects that I have that make use of that sort of thing. I just want to
make more movies.