Ever since a San Francisco Chronicle story about two rival Northern California pet cemeteries led to his 1978 debut film, Gates of Heaven (1978), Errol Morris has seemed less filmmaker than cultural anthropologist, seeking out evidence of the real America—the one taking place on the other side of your seemingly well-adjusted neighbor's backyard fence—and recording it for posterity. And if the average moviegoer might not leap to the conclusion that Morris is one of the most important and innovative of American filmmakers, it may be because he has so often been classified as a “documentarian”—a designation, it's worth noting, that is far more frequently applied than it is defined. (“Roger Ebert once asked me the difference between a documentary and a drama, and I told him, 'Three zeroes,'” Morris jokes on the phone.) It's also a label that has done little to endear Morris or his films, which frequently incorporate staged and heavily stylized sequences, to the nonfiction-filmmaking establishment.
If The Fog of War is nominated, as many predict, for a documentary Oscar, it will be the first such nomination Morris has received in an oeuvre that includes the 1988 film The Thin Blue Line, in which Morris' investigation into the 1976 murder of a Dallas policeman resulted in evidence that ultimately overturned the conviction of a death-row inmate. No matter. Morris' films don't need Oscar's validation to stand tall among the American movies of the last 25 years. Nor do they need some genre classification to help us understand what they are.
The Fog of War is, I think, Morris' most vital work yet on the subject of our national identity—a soaring, tumbling somersault through 87 years of American history, distilled into 11 “lessons” from the life of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who didn't just bear witness to those years, but helped to shape many of them. Interviewed by Morris via his patented Interrotron (basically a modified Teleprompter that allows his subject to stare directly into a real-time image of Morris' face, rather than at a naked camera lens), McNamara weaves a tale that is part biography, part political thriller and nearly all cautionary tale—a story (Morris has wryly called it “a tragic Horatio Alger story”) of our country's sometimes laudable, often reprehensible quest for manifest destiny. OC WEEKLY: Why Robert McNamara?ERROL MORRIS: Why not McNamara? Well, he is somewhat different from your usual subjects, in that he's someone who's spent the better part of his adult life in front of the camera, honing his image. Did you feel that you were able to get past that veneer?
You don't know. There's always that question: Is this interview different than the other interviews? In some respects it clearly is, because there's new information here. I also think that the nature of the interview is probably different from the interviews McNamara's done in the past, simply because it's so extensive—just the sheer quantity of interview material. It's not a simple question-and-answer format where he's fielding questions from the news pool. He's being asked to reflect on the meaning of his life.
This is a man, however, who, near the end of your own film, says that it's his personal philosophy never to answer the question he's asked, but rather to answer the question he wishes he'd been asked.
What puzzles me is this idea that it has to be one or the other. What I find interesting is that people, when they look at the film, feel thrown back into the question: Is he being ingenuous or not? And I think what's so deeply fascinating about this style of interviewing is that that remains an open question. If people come to me and ask, “Has McNamara gone as far as he should?”—whatever that means—or “Has he confronted these issues completely?” then the answer is no. But if the question is “Has he made the attempt? Is he involved in this enterprise?,” then the answer is yes. Not that these issues are not in the film. They are in the film. And not that I think they shouldn't be addressed. They should be addressed. But I don't want to see what I believe is also very important in this movie get lost because of that—namely, what he's telling us about us. You know, the history of the 20th century according to Robert McNamara is a history of bumbling, self-deception, confusion, error, false ideology, false hope—a history with surprising relevance for the current situation that we're in.
What distinctions exist for you between truth and fiction in the cinema? Or is it folly to search for such distinctions?
I think it is folly, for a number of reasons. That doesn't mean I don't think truth is important. I think it's very important. In fact, many of my films have been a pursuit of truth. But I have my own version of Godard's quote about cinema being truth 24 times per second. My version goes: Film is lies 24 times per second. I think that The Fog of War, like The Thin Blue Line, is a very odd film that tries to do a number of things that I don't think are often done. One thing is the idea of interviewing just one person, where the focus becomes not so much “Is he telling the truth?”—although that is part of it—but more important, “What was he thinking through all of this? Who is he?” Then there's a really deep question to be asked: “How can people do these things?” And the movie, in a certain way, provides an answer to that question.
Crave more Morris Q&A? Mike Kaspar and theWeekly's Nathan Callahan interview the filmmaker onWeekly Signals on KUCI-FM 88.9. Tues., 8 a.m. Also streaming worldwide at kuci.uci.edu.