THE BLOG
08/06/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Errol Morris and the Passing of Robert McNamara

Months before he won the Academy Award for Documentary Feature for The Fog of War, I was fortunate enough to interview Errol Morris for the first time, for Entertainment Today. Our one-on-one and his film shifted the rage I felt toward Robert McNamara to something more akin to sympathetic revulsion. With the passing of Mr. McNamara, and with the pure vitriol on the Net today aimed at him, I thought I might re-post Errol's unique perspective on a most complex man.

Errol Morris is like a Mensa teddy bear. His warmth and humanity are unrestrained. When you compliment him on his accomplishments in redefining documentary film, he says, "Awww," in a tone of voice that is both humble and charming. But ask him a question about film theory, history or his latest film The Fog of War, an examination of the life and mind of former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, and the cuddly persona converts to that of scholarly orator, one who speaks with authority, memorized citations at the ready, with a smooth clarity and purpose.

Morris is not your typical interview subject. He is known for inventing the Interrotron, a camera that allows the interviewer and subject to see one another, while getting the subject to look straight at the lens. His techniques include re-enactments, fluid and varied editing, a willingness to explore the psyche of subjects and evocative soundtrack music, once again using the work of Phillip Glass for Fog of War (opening Dec. 19).

There is yet another tool of the trade Morris employs that is not only unique but hard to define. His usage of "visual analogies," symbolic representations of themes, is present in Fog with a series of dominoes falling. Not only did the Cold War mentality and a "domino theory" of Communist incursion influence McNamara's service to presidents Kennedy and Johnson, but the dominoes also speak to McNamara's lessons on war within the film, informed as well by his involvement with the devastating firebombing of 67 Japanese cities during World War II. At that point in the film, the archival footage of bombs being dropped changes to numerals being dropped, another potent visual analogy.

"Actually, they're handwritten numbers," explained Morris, "and the numbers come from documents which we found in the National Archive which were prepared by Robert S. McNamara. Very few people today know about the firebombing and hardly anybody knows about Robert McNamara's role in the firebombing. There have been I don't know how many biographies of McNamara. None of them have mentioned any of this history. And I believe we were the first people to find those memos, those notes. I don't think they've been looked at since the end of World War II."

Critics of McNamara, as sole, belated government apologist for this country's role in Vietnam, most pertinently in his memoir, In Retrospect, may gain more perspective, in light of McNamara, in Fog of War, not only acknowledging that we came to the brink of nuclear annihilation with the U.S.S.R. three times but his strongly advocating nuclear nonproliferation. "There was a screening in New York," Morris recalled, "earlier this week and Morley Safer was there and I had a long conversation with him. And he said, 'Well, you know, McNamara has made a career out of hand wringing.' And I said, 'Would you prefer that it was a career of self-congratulations?'"

Morris's documentary brings to the fore many considerations about McNamara, including his appointment by JFK after being head of the Ford Motor Company, the nefarious Gulf of Tonkin episode, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis and McNamara's complex relationship to ultra-hawk, Air Force General Curtis LeMay, who directly confronted JFK, advocating nuclear war. "Now, there is no more Krushchev," Morris analyzes, "there is no more Soviet Union and there was no nuclear Armageddon in 1962. But one thing if not certain is pretty damn clear: if we had invaded Cuba, if we had bombed Cuba, in all likelihood, the Russians would have been forced to respond, quite likely with nuclear weapons. They had them and they were in a position to use them and to make matters worse, the local commanders had autonomy from the Kremlin to use them at their own discretion if necessary."

McNamara's "lessons" in Fog of War take on a greater significance when applied to the current military action in Iraq and its corresponding connection to a Southeast Asian conflict that resulted in more than 58,000 American and 3.4 million Vietnamese dead. Morris feels the associations will be made and thus does not refer to current geopolitics in the documentary: "... For me, the meaning of the story is that when you have a predisposition to see something, you can ignore endless evidence to the contrary. And you can even imagine confirming evidence. That's the worst of it. It was in service of this theme, believing is seeing, which as we all know has currency for our particular time in history, because regardless of whether this is a replay of Vietnam or something very different, there are identifiable themes here. And they relate to many of the things that McNamara is saying. Empathize with your enemy. Try at least on some level to understand your enemy without being too touchy-feely. ...It becomes more and more evident every day that our fantasies about weapons of mass destruction were just that and that the evidence for them is spurious at best."

In Fog of War, as with those connected to the pet cemetery in Gates of Heaven, the unjustly accused murderer in The Thin Blue Line and others, the process of examining quirky, iconoclastic or highly complex personality drives Morris. " I think what's documentary-like about me -- parenthetically and quickly -- is my obsession with investigation that many documentary filmmakers do not share. And my obsession with unconstrained monologue -- of putting people in a place where they're trying to tell you who they are and how they should be understood in their own words."