Strange Days

Errol Morris gets history right by recognizing that it's usually all wrong

Errol Morris, sitting just one story above the floor from which Lee Harvey Oswald killed (or did not, whatever) John Kennedy, does not know where to begin. The maker of documentaries--he's interviewed subjects ranging from Florida codgers and owners of pet cemeteries to the imprisoned innocent and builders of execution machines--is rarely at a loss for words. He will even joke that the reason he makes movies is so he can go on the road to talk about them. When he does begin speaking, Morris delivers what you might call a monologue; the interviewer can interject, occasionally prompt, but Morris follows his own route and will not be detoured easily into someone else's cul-de-sac. But at this moment, he does not speak. Morris, in untucked shirt and rumpled khakis, only stares at the image on the wall opposite from where he sits--a black-and-white picture of a handsome, balding and bespectacled man who, at the moment the photo was taken, was wondering how to end a war that would eventually decimate one country and tear apart another.

It is a photograph of Robert Strange McNamara, sitting in a Cabinet meeting with President Kennedy, under whom McNamara served as secretary of defense. The picture is one of many of McNamara and Kennedy that hangs in the seventh floor of the former Texas School Book Depository, which now houses the government offices for Dallas County and a museum devoted to the life, and death, of a president. Morris stares at it because, he will say, looking at it is like looking into his own brain, which swirls with images of McNamara, Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam, Japan during World War II, the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis. It is as though someone has taken a snapshot of Morris' insides and plastered it on the wall facing him. "Weird," he murmurs, almost to himself.

For several years, Morris has been working on his film about McNamara, titled The Fog of War, which has been making its way into theaters since the end of last year. On the very day of this interview, Morris found out his movie had been nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary category. Although the movie is finished and being feted, Morris can't let go of it--or, more to the point, he can't let go of McNamara, who stared into Morris' camera for 20 hours and explained his part in some of American history's more tragic decisions.

Don't gimme no chit (or chat): Errol Morris and Robert McNamara talked for 20 hours, two of which made it into The Fog of War.
Don't gimme no chit (or chat): Errol Morris and Robert McNamara talked for 20 hours, two of which made it into The Fog of War.

"The things that made me interested in making this movie from the very beginning still make me interested in this material," says Morris, the former private dick who now snoops with the permission of his subjects. "The various mysteries--and I think that's the appropriate word--about Robert McNamara, about the Kennedy and the Johnson administrations, it's not as though The Fog of War can put to rest all of these mysteries, as if I can settle things once and for all. I can't. And the movie can't do that either. The questions that the movie raises are very powerful, for me, very powerful and interesting questions that remain and probably will remain long after I finish this movie--they're certainly with me now. A central theme of all of the movies I've made is this question of what is inside of people's heads, what's going on inside their heads."

What goes on inside Morris' head is Robert McNamara, still talking, still explaining, still weighing his decisions against their horrific results.

Just being in Dallas seems almost too overwhelming for Morris, especially on this day, when scheduled interviews are being interrupted by phone calls from faraway journalists needing comment on his Oscar nomination. It was in Dallas that Errol Morris found himself in the mid-1980s, telling the horrific tale of Randall Dale Adams, an innocent man convicted in 1977 of shooting and killing a Dallas police officer. Morris came to this city to tell the story of Dr. James Grigson, the psychiatrist whose testimony on behalf of the prosecution guaranteed the death penalty for defendants; he left some 30 months later with The Thin Blue Line, the 1988 docu-noir that got a man out of prison.

Now, the filmmaker sits just a few feet above the site where another man was gunned down--a man who, had he lived, might have gotten the United States out of Vietnam and kept McNamara from being one of the most despised men of the latter half of the 20th century. After all, his detractors were not being kind when they referred to Vietnam as "McNamara's War"; imagine living with that on your shoulders for four decades.

Morris begins wondering aloud all the what-ifs that rattle around his brain: "What if Kennedy had lived?" he begins, his deadpan voice gathering momentum, like the snowflake that sparks an avalanche. "What if Kennedy had not been assassinated? Would there have been over half a million troops in Southeast Asia? Would he have escalated the war, or would he have pulled out? I know a lot of people hear these kinds of what-if questions, and they say, 'Oh, who the hell can know what could've been? Isn't that idle thinking? Who cares?' But I like to remind people, I like to remind myself, that all of history is based on what-if thinking, to the extent that we think about cause and effect. We ask ourselves, 'Well, if I removed this cause, would I still have that same effect?' In essence, we are constantly asking what-if questions." McNamara would ask many of the same questions in his 1995 book about the "tragedy" of Vietnam.

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