Most people do not realize that the documentary genre includes widely varying subgenres other than the most commonly-known “talking head” approach, such as educational, persuasive, performative, participatory, and poetic. Most great documentary filmmakers incorporate several styles. One such documentarian, and arguably the greatest, is Errol Morris. His Oscar-winning 2004 documentary The Fog of War is a startling, candid portrait of former Secretary of Defense (during the Vietnam War) Robert McNamara. The film combines extensive interviews with McNamara (through Morris’ unique Interrotron device, which allows the subject to look directly at the camera and still maintain eye contact with the interviewer), archival footage, previously unreleased and classified taped conversations, a dazzling array of visual techniques and montages, and an unforgettable score by Philip Glass to create one of the most stunning documentaries of all time. He proves that documentaries can be highly artistic and aesthetic. The paper also covers some of the key points made by McNamara and explores their implications for today’s world.
According to Bill Nichols in Introduction to Documentary, documentary films fall into six categories, or modes of representation. However, they seldom, if ever, fit neatly into one category. Often, documentaries combine characteristics of two or more types. The Fog of War is primarily a participatory documentary. “Filmmakers who seek to represent their own direct encounter with their surrounding world and those who seek to represent broad social issues and historical perspectives through interviews and compilation footage constitute two large components of the participatory mode” (Nichols 123). Since the film utilizes an interview with Robert McNamara and archival footage to attempt to make sense of history, it clearly falls into the latter component.
In The Fog of War, the interview between Errol Morris and Robert McNamara acts as the film’s foundation. “The interview stands as one of the most common forms of encounter between filmmaker and subject in participatory documentary” (Nichols 121). What makes the interview particularly engaging is a device that Morris uses when filming that allows the subject to look directly at the camera when speaking. This gives the sense that McNamara is actually talking to the viewer and establishes a certain intimacy between subject and audience. In fact, there are times when the close-up shots are so extreme that the viewer can look McNamara right in the eyes. There are also moments during the film when Morris can be heard off-screen prompting McNamara with questions or comments. Since Morris was obviously prompting him the whole time, it was a deliberate choice for him to leave these parts in the film. He includes his voice when he wants to draw attention to the issue or when something sensitive is being discussed, such as Vietnam or the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In the history of the United States, the Vietnam War is one of the most controversial and polarizing topics. Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense from 1960-1967 during the first years of the conflict, bore the brunt of the blame at the time and still continues to be blamed today. However, he explains in the film that the responsibility was ultimately the President’s. This does not mean that he does not acknowledge his role in the events or account for his actions, but he feels that they were doing what they thought was best at the time with the information they had available to them. In the film, he admits something that seldom escapes the mouth of a government official, “We were wrong…And it carried such heavy costs.” Basically, nothing the U.S. could have done would have changed the situation, and the Vietnamese resented the intervention. Also, the U.S. had no support from other countries. McNamara explains, “None of our allies supported us…If we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we’d better reexamine our reasoning.” By shedding light on the past through his personal encounters with it and the benefit of hindsight, Robert McNamara clearly brings a unique perspective to the Vietnam War.
In order to establish rhythm, Morris uses a brilliant and very distinct montage technique. He bombards the viewer with pictures, words, charts, and numbers in relation to the topic at hand. The tempo starts slow and then increases until the visuals are practically blurring together on the screen. For instance, after McNamara talks about the protests to the Vietnam War, a montage that encapsulates the general consensus about him during and after the war shows the beating he took in the media. Some of the images include articles with emphasis on particular words or phrases, such as “warmonger” and “two-faced,” as well as pictures and satirical cartoons. This not only establishes rhythm, it also serves to set a tone. Depending on the subject matter, this tone can be triumphant or horrifying. Morris employs this technique effectively in several other instances in the film. Lastly, the original score by Philip Glass contributes immensely to the overall mood of the film. Music is an important aspect of both the poetic and performative modes of documentary. The performative mode “freely mixes the expressive techniques that give texture and density to fiction…” (Nichols 134), such as a musical score. The haunting score perfectly compliments and enriches the film, sets the mood, and lingers with the viewer long after the film is over.
All in all, The Fog of War is an intimate and uncompromising look at history through the eyes of someone who experienced it personally. On an ideological level, the film goes even deeper still. It indicates the dangers present in today’s world, and both Errol Morris and Robert McNamara are imploring world leaders to pay attention. When talking about the United States, McNamara asks, “What makes us omniscient? Have we a record of omniscience?” These questions hit especially close to home in regards to the present war in Iraq. He urges people today to think about the consequences of their actions. He challenges, “I think the human race needs to think more about killing, about conflict. Is that what we want in this 21st century?” He predicts, “The indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations.” If people do not heed these warnings with the way things are going today, he may very well be right.