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6.1.04

Political "Fog" Cleared in Morris's Documentary — by Todd Babcock

Invariably, during the holiday, when all my fellow "escapees" return from their various checkpoints across the map to converge on my little hometown of Jackson, Michigan (the self-reported Birthplace of the Republican Party [picture of the convention Under the Oaks]), there is one night where we all gather to report in on our various accomplishments and lack thereof. This usually takes the form of a lot of cheese, martinis, and spattering the air with verbal jockeying for attention. It’s a lively bunch so you’d better have your rap down.

Once the various islands of catch-up have run their course of war stories on relationships, work struggles, and artistic achievements, the conversations generally find their way to a common circle that has erupted about politics. Here the Leftists passionately plead to be understood, the Right insists they are misunderstood, and the Centrists mumble occasionally that he/she "has a good point." In the end we all go away thinking the other is crazy and gushing over and over, "I can’t believe he said that!"

In a year in which we saw another war in the Middle East, Saddam’s capture, Howard Dean’s anger, Arnold Schwarzenegger made governor, and Rush Limbaugh accused of having an addiction to illegal painkillers, one would think the time was ripe for this year-end discussion. Yet I found myself oddly checked out of these discussions. Perhaps it was overload from a year of political rhetoric that has permeated every nook and cranny of the media. With seemingly 50 news programs, event graphics, Internet polling, orange alerts, and an airport voice-over reminding you of terrorist threats, there was no place to hide. Even the comedians have turned their eyes on matters of the state as HBO’s biggest comedy shows seem to be talking heads spouting left and right in the forms of Bill Maher and Dennis Miller (in an epic struggle, to be sure) and the Clooney/Soderberg-produced K Street. Bestsellers from the likes of Hillary Clinton, Al Franken, Ann Coulter, Ariana Huffington, and other politicians vying for time slots on Leno, Letterman, and O’Brien (in between bouts of an insult comedy dog and stupid pet tricks) have left no stone unturned.

In the end, I fear, my burnout had less to do with the proliferation of political agendas on the airwaves and more to do with my lack of faith in anyone being open to another’s idea. The word agenda seems extremely apt when one gets the feeling that every discussion is coming from a "party line" and any straying from it is a form of losing ground. This polarized defensism is nothing new to politics but has certainly mutated to a new form in entertainment. One feels while watching Ann Coulter spar with Eric Dyson on Bill Maher that if either gives an inch they are going to lose a sizeable margin of book sales that year. When FOX News and CNN and such have a following based on the perception they lean one way or another how can one feel they will risk losing their hard-earned demographic in order to embrace the "truth"?

Yes, indeed, it has been reported that viewers were beginning to tune into Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show on Comedy Central in order to get their news. Apparently, Mr. Stewart has found a fine balance of egalitarian satire by skewering the media itself and thus blanketing the entire dialogue in a cloak of ridiculousness. The point being that the only "line" that Jon is towing is the one with "punch" as its prefix. Indeed, Jon is a whore to the bottom-line joke, and who can’t have a little faith in that? The real joke being that, of course, folks are tuning into a mock news program on a network titled "Comedy Central" for their updates on world events. A point that seemed to disturb Mr. Stewart, though I’m sure he was oddly pleased. He won’t miss a beat.

In the end, our own "three-party system" took the form of the Leftist New York designer condemning the Rightist importer from Chicago, while the defeated LA actor tried to find a way to make it funny. (Which is why we have to stop electing actors into office but that’s another posting.)

Feeling reasonably guilty for my lack of input in our annual dissection, I decided I needed some intellectual nutrition to atone for my sins. So I went to the movies. Not any movie, mind you, but a documentary. Not any documentary either, but one about an 86-year-old retired Secretary of Defense talking for 100 minutes on his years during the Kennedy administration. If going to the cinema took the form of penance, this surely had to be it.

How wrong I was.

Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, Mr. Death), the documentarian, has a history of taking unconventional subjects and making them seem effortlessly captivating. This is the man who took a topiary gardener, lion tamer, and man preoccupied by mole rats and wove them together in Fast Cheap and Out of Control and made the link seem like common sense. In The Fog of War, Morris is in top form with this spoken-word documentary that seems to blend biography with history to achieve a certain type of political allegory.

The subject here is William McNamara, the aforementioned Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy administration and later under Lyndon B. Johnson. McNamara is 86 and looking every bit the man twenty years his junior. The man is so lucid and energetically poignant, I found myself doing math equations in my head trying to figure out how a man so young could have served under Kennedy. Born in 1918, the telling of this man’s life in politics can’t help but take the form of a recounting of the twentieth century. Yet, this is no dry history lesson. McNamara speaks with a conviction that drives the film forward as Morris's close-up camera lens practically absorbs his energy and seeps it into the theatre.

The material is rich here. Even if you are a political junkie or a curious onlooker seeking Spalding Gray-type enthusiasm, you won’t be disappointed. McNamara lends himself to intriguing structure as he moves forward with forceful sentences and hand gestures while occasionally cutting back in time twenty years in a shot without ever losing the focus. (Morris intercuts vintage footage of McNamara in press reports, news footage, and actual audiotaped conversations between him and the two presidents.) While Morris's hand is certainly not invisible here with shots of dominoes falling over a world map and his occasional shouted questions coming from what seems like a room a hundred yards away, the effect is fluid and continuous edification.

Though many are aware of McNamara and his time with the Oval Office they may not be aware of the richness of his life outside of politics. Simply hearing a man recount his memory at the age of two (yes, two) of the ending of WWI gives you a certain faith in the wealth of information he can access. Hearing him recount Kennedy’s attempt to lure him from the Presidency of Ford Motor Company to be Secretary of Defense is at once endearing and chilling. ("You know, William," Kennedy allegedly said, after McNamara refused both Defense and Treasury positions due to lack of confidence, "There’s no school for being President, either.")

Throughout the film I found myself trying to find some form of refuge from many of the horror stories from behind-the-scenes politics our narrator continually spouted. When you hear of the nuclear close calls and disheartening conversations with Johnson and Castro, you keep waiting for some sense of reassurance. There is none. In a culture so cinematically and politically reared to be assuaged with safety and the assumptions of "I hope they know what they are doing," this film reminds you that even those with their fingers on the button are just men. Men who make mistakes, make them again, and probably again. McNamara's point he makes repeatedly is that any person in authority in war, no matter what you're told, has made a mistake that has cost human lives, in his case, tens of thousands, but the hope is that you minimize and learn from them.

In the midst of a political mire of information from all sides, this film seems to peel away agenda and simply humanize that which seems so dehumanized by our media. While it's chilling to hear in Johnson's own voice, "I want you to kill some people," there's also a comfort in someone letting you know these men are still simply trying to solve problems. McNamara is a numbers man and made his decisions based purely on what was statistically sound (indeed, he was first recruited by the Air Force as a statistician out of Berkeley). It may seem cold yet, oddly, often the statistics had a form of morality of their own.

While my true desire in seeing "Fog of War" was in the hope that an 86-year-old politician might actually throw caution to the wind and tell the truth. In this case, it plays out like a "be careful what you wish for." McNamara has no interest in shaming the people he worked with or himself. In fact, his honesty, even when harshly revealing, has the effect of humanizing its subjects. He never condemns one side or the other for their methods but simply points out their various levels of effectiveness. When asked about Vietnam and whether there's guilt or regret, he implies that a response will serve no one. "I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't. I'd prefer to be damned if I don't."

In a time when you feel you can't trust a single source for its authenticity in reporting, "Fog of War" feels like a revolutionary act. Yet one is reminded in this film of a quote from another bastion of political insight and reportage. The movies.

"I want the truth."

"You can't handle the truth!" I hope most people can. See this film.

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