Saturday, September 6, 2014



Director: Errol Morris

As most of you know, I've pre-written many of these Canon of Film posts, some of them years earlier, and this one, I wrote, this one for "The Fog of War", perhaps, eight or nine years ago, maybe earlier, and looking it up now, I'm struck that I wrote "...Not only should the Bush administration watch the film, it should be mandatory viewing for every Secretary of Defense, including and especially Rumsfeld." Of course, thinking back on Morris's latest film, "The Unknown Known", which is essentially a pseudo-companion piece to "The Fog of War", only through the barely knowledgeable words of Donald Rumsfeld as he stumbles and bumbles his way through his experiences, mainly orchestrating the Iraq War and the numerous post 9/11 blunders he and the Bush administration oversaw and ordered. It was clear, although I was also informed by Morris that Rumsfeld had not seen "The Fog of War" until he was preparing for the interviews, and while "The Unknown Known" is certainly a compelling watch for other reasons, this sobering insider perspective on the Kennedy and Johnson administrations as well as the sharp eyewitness accounts of an 80+ old McNamara, are simply compelling. A diagram and model for the kind of person and knowledge that's required for that job, which makes the mistakes they made, help us realize just how fragile us, our country, our military, our government, and that most entrusted of positions as Secretary of Defense, truly is. 

Errol Morris is widely considered one of, if not the best documentarians in film history.  His first film, “Gates of Heaven,” about pet cemeteries was considered by Roger Ebert one of the ten best films, not documentaries, films ever made. His landmark film “The Thin Blue Line” used reenactments and many points of view to analyze a murder and actually got Randall Evans off of death row when he found the guy who actually did the murder and got him to confess. (Morris spent many years as a Private Eye when he couldn’t find film work) Other films of his include “Vernon, Florida” about a town where its residents are known to lose body parts at an alarming rate so they can collect the insurance money, “Mr. Death,” about a man who designs electric chairs and other such machines, "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control", about four people obsessed in different ways with controlling nature, and “A Brief History of Time,” based on the Stephen Hawking book. In 2003, he won an Oscar for “The Fog of War,” the best and arguably the most important documentary of the decade. Originally planned as a one-hour PBS special, Morris interviews JFK and LBJ’s Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, the man considered to be the architect of the Vietnam War for two 10-hour days, and at an alert 85-years old at the time, McNamara analyzes his entire life but also gives us shocking details about the confusion, misinformation and unknowns that went into the decisions that were made that during not only Vietnam, but WWII.

The films is subtitled “Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” and throughout the film, we're given actual lessons and teachings from McNamara's life and work, all of which are crucial for war, but could easily be applied personally. (To contrast with the numerous moment in "The Unknown Known" where, Morris asked Rumsfeld about what lessons he learned from those experiences of his, and he could barely stumble out coherency, much less anything remotely related to advice, much less a "lesson" that he learned.) Lessons like, #6 “Get the data” and #8 “Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning,” are invaluable. Talking into an interrotron, Morris’s own invention which enables the interviewee to look into the eyes of the interviewer and the camera at the same time creating this strange and intense effect for us and his interview subjects, McNamara discusses the idiosyncrasies of Gen. Curtis Lemay, who not only was the one who basically ordered the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also orchestrated the constant and continual firebombing of Japan that murdered just as many, if not more people. When McNamara says that 50% of Tokyo was firebombed, is like saying 50% of New York City is firebombed, and in a brilliant display, Morris compares all the firebombing of cities in Japan to cities in America in a montage to achieve full impact of the destruction. It's both shocking and disturbing. 

McNamara moves on to discuss the Cuban Missile Crises showing just how lucky the world is to have survived those eleven days. He also goes into other details like his days at Ford, where he made seatbelts in cars mandatory. White House tapes that had never been released before show conversations with McNamara and Kennedy and Johnson in discussing the situations in Vietnam show both Kennedy beginning to back out of there before his death and Johnson fearing the domino theory true continually ordering to escalate it, especially after an attack on a U.S. ship, where tapes on board that ship show that an attack may not have occurred at all. 

Lesson #7 Belief and seeing are both often wrong. McNamara is a statistical genius and a thorough thinker and analyzer of information, what this movie shows is how even he, an Ivy League valedictorian eventually was unable to fully grasp of all the complexities that are involved in war that may or may not go into every decision that’s made. Lesson #1 “Empathize with your enemy,” is a rule that should've been stapled to Bush’s head, although Lesson #9 “In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil,” should be noted to all those who just blindly accept or dismiss everything the White House does. In the end, Morris tries to bait McNamara into apologizing, but he feels that such a gesture would be useless and mean little so long afterwards, that it’s not worth it. McNamara passed away in '09; he never did apologize, and after watching "The Fog of War", it's hard to blame him for that. What would the worth be of apologizing now? 

Lesson #11: “You can’t change human nature,” is ironically by human nature, what humans try to do.