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 thaton 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.

Maybe that is why Morris is so obsessed with McNamara, the former Whiz Kid who was partially responsible for the firebombing of Tokyo and 66 other Japanese cities during World War II, which led to the deaths of more than a million innocent people. McNamara--the servant carrying out the orders of presidents, which led to bombing with napalm and sanctioned massacres in Vietnam. McNamara--the technocrat doing his duty, despite knowing what he was doing would be considered criminal by any moral code. McNamara--the former Ford Motor Co. executive who created life-saving devices, then became part of a government that sanctioned the killing of hundreds of thousands. Morris is obsessed with the contradictions of McNamara's life, how his intentions and actions were so damned incongruous.

"If this man, Robert S. McNamara, was opposed to the war in October of 1963, how did that war end up becoming 'McNamara's War,' and how did he end up being perceived as the chief architect of that war in the Johnson administration?" Morris says. "What the hell happened?"

Morris became interested in McNamara long ago, when Morris the college student (as an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin and grad student at Princeton) demonstrated against Vietnam, after McNamara had resigned in February 1968. But his interest turned from curiosity to obsession in 1995, after McNamara published In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, in which he tries to explain what he did without apologizing for what he caused. McNamara accomplished the nearly impossible in the book: He got the right, left and center to hate him--"that hat trick," Morris says, grinning--by taking responsibility without accepting the blame, by owning up to his part in history without apologizing for it. It's the same reaction some people have to Morris' film: They want McNamara to say that he feels guilty, to admit to culpability, to apologize and ask for absolution on bended knee. He won't do it. And Morris doesn't want him to. What point, he asks, would it serve?

"He has made me think a lot about apologies," Morris says. "What is an apology? Why is it so important to us? I even asked myself the question at one point: Do I want him to apologize? Can you apologize for something like this: 58,000 Americans with their names on that wall in Washington, 2 million-plus Vietnamese? Is this the kind of thing that you say, 'Oopsies, I'm sorry.' And what would that mean? My feeling is that we like apologies, because apologies empower us...I think a lot of people want McNamara to apologize so they can reject the apology, basically."

When he began making movies with 1978's Gates of Heaven, about competing pet-cemetery owners in Southern California, and 1981's Vernon, Florida, populated by turkey hunters and a couple who believe they can "grow" sand, Morris seemed much more interested in eccentrics and weirdos--the goofballs living on the lunatic fringe. That all changed when he met Randall Adams in a Texas penitentiary, while he was working on the Grigson film. Adams told Morris he was innocent, Morris believed him and set about making a movie in which he proved not only that Adams didn't kill a cop (he wasn't even at the scene), but that the district attorney's star witness was the man who pulled the trigger. Morris would return to interviewing eccentrics (1997's Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, featuring, among others, a man enamored of mole rats and a retired lion tamer) and the occasional genius (Stephen Hawking, subject of 1991's A Brief History of Time).

But his movies would become increasingly interested in subjects who made death their business: 1998's Stairway to Heaventold of an autistic woman who created "humane" methods of killing animals, while the following year's Mr. Death visited Fred Leuchter, an inventor of electric chairs and other execution devices who believes the Holocaust was little more than a myth. But till now, Morris has dealt with amateurs; none of his subjects has more blood on his hands than Robert McNamara, who does not pretend otherwise. Only a few minutes into his first interview with Morris, McNamara revealed something he had kept out of his book--his involvement in the Japanese firebombings during World War II. Morris initially didn't believe him; why was this just coming out now? So he went to the National Archives and found out that, yes, McNamara was telling the truth. Why, at this late date, Morris had no idea--except, perhaps, because McNamara is as obsessed with what he did as Morris is and they are just two men trying to get to the truth before it becomes too late.

"History, properly considered, is a mystery," Morris says. "When I made The Thin Blue Line in Dallas, in some real sense I was involved in a historical investigation, in something that happened in the recent past, but something that happened--the past tense. It's going through documents, it's talking to people, it's thinking about what might've happened, what must've happened. It's trying to recover, if you like, the past from a mass of detail...I try to research what I do; I try to go back over documents, details. Someone asked me recently, and I hear these questions again and again and again, 'You used re-enactments in The Thin Blue Line and additional visual material in The Fog of War--are you really concerned with truth?' And the answer is yes, I am very much concerned with truth, with what really happened. And in the process of trying to figure out things, often the story changes."

And with that, Morris is off again to another interview, where he will raise more questions than provide answers--like his movies, and very much like Robert McNamara.

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