Errol Morris: Making history

'Part-denial, part-confession' is how Morris describes his Oscar-winning film on Robert McNamara, US Defense Secretary during the Vietnam War
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The Independent Culture

" Curiouser and curiouser" may have been Alice's reaction to Wonderland, but Errol Morris has come to the same conclusion about the world around him without ever having fallen down a rabbit hole. Admittedly, he has made it his business to root out those who have - he has a nose for stories that appear unusual, implausible, sometimes plain daft. But Morris is not after cheap laughs, that would be too easy.

Documentary film-making may seem a logical enough - if rare - career change for a private detective, but Morris was never your everyday PI. He had studied history, philosophy and the history of science, learnt to play the cello, and done some serious rock-climbing before turning gumshoe.

His filmography is as eclectic as one might expect: Gates of Heaven (about pet cemeteries); Vernon, Florida (a town in which the inhabitants like to lop off their own limbs for insurance claims); A Brief History of Time (on Stephen Hawking); Mr Death (an electric-chair maker and Holocaust denier); Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (about a lion-tamer, a topiarist, a mole-rat expert, and a robot scientist). Most famously, he made The Thin Blue Line, about a miscarriage of justice that led to the release of death-row inmate Randall Adams, when Morris captured the confession of the real murderer on tape.

Morris's latest, The Fog of War, may not have the power to put people in prison, but it quite brilliantly assesses the guilt of a few over the deaths of many.

The film garnered Morris his first Oscar nomination. Before the award ceremony, Morris was ambivalent about the whole process: "When Thin Blue Line came out, there was an article in The Washington Post - they had surveyed 100 US critics, and they picked it as the best movie of 1988. Not best documentary, best movie, and it wasn't even nominated. So, over the years, when various films have not been nominated, I've made my peace. And now I've been nominated - who the hell knows what'll happen?"

What happened was that Morris finally received the long-overdue recognition he deserves and - Michael Moore-style - said more than thank-you in his acceptance speech: "Forty years ago, this country went down a rabbit hole in Vietnam and millions died," he declared on Sunday. "I fear we are going down the rabbit hole once again. And if people can stop and reflect on some of the ideas and issues in this movie, perhaps I've done some damn good here."

Ostensibly an interview with JFK and Lyndon Johnson's Defense Secretary Robert S McNamara, The Fog of War is an exploration of truth, lies, and the grey area in between. It charts McNamara's life from Depression-era child to one of the most powerful people in the world, via the Second World War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam. It is replete with shocking revelations about the circumstances of US military history, yet never loses sight of its subject - a man with the need to tell his side of the story.

And what a story: we learn of the firebombing and destruction of 67 Japanese cities by the US before the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; how close the US came to nuclear war with Cuba; and how they moved from their position as "advisers" to Vietnam, to waging war on the strength of a military cock-up.

When I meet Morris, a mariachi band strikes up outside the hotel's open window just as I am about to ask him my first question. "That happens every time someone tries to ask me a question," he laughs. Mercifully, the band moves on and I try again. Was he concerned, I wonder, that by talking solely to McNamara, he might be in danger of producing just another piece of propaganda?

"It's something I was concerned about throughout the making of the film," Morris concedes. "It was certainly my choice to interview just McNamara and no one else, because my interest is in what is going on in his head - how he explains things, not simply to us but to himself, with the hope that it contains many of the internal contradictions that have fascinated me about him.

"And I believe it does," he continues. "He reveals many things about himself, often in his refusal to answer questions, in his silences, in the way he shapes an answer to a question to suit his own needs or interest - that becomes what the movie really is about."

And did these revelations cause Morris to reassess the man? "There's something of which I do remind myself often," Morris begins, slowly and deliberately. "He may not have been responsible for the entire war in Vietnam, but he was certainly a part of it. And when he talks about being part of the mechanism - well, he was more than that. He was the Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson. He was one of the most powerful men in government, one of the most powerful men in the world, and Vietnam was horrible. I demonstrated against the war and I feel the same way now as I always felt about it.

"There's no doubt that Robert McNamara has been involved in many bad things, but what I would say is that there's something deeply moving about this effort to confront his past. He's involved in some kind of complicated theatre with himself. It's part-denial, part-admission, part-confession - it's very powerful and very complex."

The interviews with McNamara took place over 18 months, ending just before the former politician turned 87. "He's amazing," notes Morris. "Just on the level of how he speaks, he is a very impressive man, but he is also a very difficult to interview. He refuses to address many things, and often talks about himself indirectly, through his analysis of others."

At one point, McNamara states that one should never answer the question one is asked, always the question one wishes one was asked.

"Sometimes I think that no one ever answers the question that they're asked," laughs Morris. "Language is a very tricky thing, and it's not usually a vehicle for truth. There are things we need to talk about, we want to talk about, and we will talk about them no matter what - regardless of the questions being asked."

Does he think McNamara was honest? "To the extent that any of us can be honest," shrugs Morris. "I think he fights with himself to try to understand who he is. I would say that he is a deeply sincere and ingenuous man, who is trying to tell us something and believes what he is saying."

Not that Morris took Robert McNamara's word as gospel. "I tried, independently of McNamara, to investigate historically the various claims that are made," he explains. "I read somewhere that McNamara had made up the nature of his involvement in the Second World War. So we went to the national archives in Washington, DC, and what did we find? Hundreds of pages of his notes and memoranda from 1945 that support his version.

"So," he continues, "the film is a mixture of the subjective and the objective. Yes, given that it is a monologue, it is personally inflected, self-serving in many ways, biased... But there is nothing in the movie that he talks about that can't be substantiated by hard objective historical evidence."

The evidence is remarkable, sourced as it is through the Presidential library in Washington, DC - original documents, tape-recordings of conversations between Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. "These recordings are the front-row seat in history," comments Morris. "The conversations are very odd, it's almost a feeling of eavesdropping on something you shouldn't be hearing, and may never have been intended to hear."

Certainly, it's hard to believe that anyone involved would have been happy that the lead-up to the escalation of hostilities in Vietnam should have been so recorded. In August 1964, a US ship was attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin, on the east coast of North Vietnam. The attack was investigated, corroborated, and the decision was not to react. Two days later, another attack was reported, and this time the government decided enough was enough and the Vietnam War began in earnest. The second attack, it turns out, never actually happened.

"If I were Oliver Stone," notes Morris with a sly grin, "I might imagine that these events represented a vast conspiracy to defraud the American public, to trick us into thinking that we were being attacked and to launch a war in reply. But I'm not a conspiracy theorist, I don't believe in conspiracies. People are far too confused, too much at cross-purposes with themselves, too argumentative, too nutso ever effectively to conspire to do anything. Maybe they manage to pull it off for a limited amount of time, but not on some mass scale, like deceiving the entire world.

"What scares me more, and it's at the heart of the movie, at the heart of this particular story, is not that we make this plan to lie, to deceive, but that we somehow convince ourselves of our own rectitude, our own correctness, our own rightness, no matter what the evidence to the contrary. Humans love nonsense, they lap it up. Ultimately, we're just big baboons!"

Listening to the taped discussion of the imaginary attack is mind-boggling; it would be funny, if it weren't so chilling. "Yes," agrees Morris. "You have these people discussing, 'Did you see it?', 'Well, I might have seen it', 'Yes, of course, I saw it', 'Well, I think so...'. And then McNamara tells us that they didn't see it, they imagined it. Yet we send planes off a carrier and we start bombing. And then we pass the Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorising expenditures for the war in Vietnam, and away we go. Hooray!"

There seem to be parallels with current events..."Oh, you think so?" gasps Morris in mock surprise. "There are aspects of this story that I could never have predicted. Namely, that we started these interviews in May of 2001, and, as time went on, the movie became more and more obviously relevant to the current time." When I ask him, finally, whether he fancies interviewing any of Bush's team, he grimaces. "I don't really like those people much."