Human fallibility is quite clear in `The Fog of War'

Morris takes a hard look at McNamara and Vietnam

Movies: on screen, DVD/ Video

February 26, 2004|By Chris Vognar | Chris Vognar,KNIGHT RIDDER / TRIBUNE

DALLAS -- Errol Morris leans back in a conference room in the Dallas County Administration building, just a few floors down from the Sixth Floor Museum. He is here for a screening of his Oscar-nominated documentary, The Fog of War, about the controversial Vietnam War architect Robert S. McNamara.

But as Morris discusses Fog, his mind flashes back to another film, and another time, when Dallas became his temporary home and he helped get an innocent man off death row.

"I spent an enormous amount of time in these few city blocks of Dallas," Morris says. "I spent a lot of time at the Dallas district attorney's office. I was friendly with Henry Wade. He opened the district attorney's files on the Randall Adams case to me. That's part of the reason I was able to crack the case."

Morris isn't just blowing smoke. A former private detective, he did indeed crack the Adams case. And he turned the subject into his breakthrough film, 1988's The Thin Blue Line. Since then, he has turned his philosopher's eye toward subjects ranging from mole rats and topiary sculpture (Fast, Cheap & Out of Control) to the capital punishment expert-turned-neo-Nazi-stooge Fred A. Leuchter Jr. (Death). The subjects may be all over the map, but the films are unified by a fascination with contradiction, obsession, hubris and fallibility, the blind spots that cause people to think their way is the only way, even when the evidence says something else.

"I agree with Sophocles and Plato that people don't knowingly do evil," says Morris, who studied philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, just as McNamara did. "They always find some way to tell themselves that whatever they're doing, no matter how pernicious, no matter how despicable, is still good. The human mind is fabricated in such a way that we always find a way to justify our actions to ourselves."

These beliefs are what initially brought Morris to Dallas. Twenty years ago last week, Morris came here to do a film on Dr. James Grigson, the Texas psychiatrist who made his name as an expert prosecution witness. Dr. Grigson claimed he could guarantee whether a defendant had killed and would kill again. He pointed Morris toward Randall Adams, then on death row for killing a Dallas police officer. Dr. Grigson had insisted that Adams would kill again. The Thin Blue Line offered overwhelming evidence that he hadn't killed at all. Adams' conviction was subsequently overturned, and he was released.

"To me, the Dallas police truly believed they had the guy who committed the crime," says Morris. "It's not as if they cynically said, `OK, let's pick an innocent guy and fry him.' That's not what went on. That's too easy a way to explain the world."

Morris talks like a philosopher, in long, slow sentences packed with ideas and digressions. But he is also a pragmatic thinker who has executed some of the most provocative and innovative documentaries made. And when he read McNamara's 1995 memoir, In Retrospect, he knew he had a prime subject.

McNamara, the whiz kid U.S. secretary of defense under presidents Kennedy and Johnson and now a spry octogenarian, has been vilified in the court of public opinion ever since his policies and capitulations helped escalate the Vietnam War.

But Morris wasn't looking to hold the former secretary's feet to the fire. As Morris says, that's too easy. Instead, he wanted to see what makes McNamara tick, how a brilliant man with a conscience could create and enact such destructive policies and only hint at personal responsibility.

The answer, in a brief word: war. "One of war's attractions is that it simplifies the world," says Morris. "It makes the world into something clearly black and white. You don't have to worry about subtleties anymore. You don't have to worry about thinking about anything except how we're good and they're evil. To me, war is a prescription for disaster."

In The Fog of War, McNamara recalls his earliest memory, of Armistice Day, 1918 -- the end of what President Woodrow Wilson called "the war to end all wars." It wasn't. McNamara offers his view that war should be a course of last resort -- one of many Fog lessons that Morris feels could be applied to the here and now.

"The `war to end all wars' ushered in a century of the worst carnage in human history," says the filmmaker. "War doesn't prevent war. War creates more war. Now here we are at the beginning of the 21st century, with a president who has endorsed the `war to end all war' view. And I have to tell you that it frightens me."

McNamara's legions of critics may feel that Fog goes too easy on its subject, letting him squirm away from questions of personal accountability. That's a fair accusation, but it also misses the point of why Morris made the film. McNamara's squirming, or his refusal to come clean, is symptomatic of a broader behavioral trait: the human impulse to rationalize, to see only that which verifies what we already believe to be true.

Morris' masterful handling of this theme, over the course of multiple films, has established him as one of the few bona fide geniuses in American cinema.

"The same set of questions that animated The Thin Blue Line are also at the heart of The Fog of War," he says. "These are stories about certainty, about people so cocksure that they know what's right and wrong, what's good and evil, that somehow whatever they do is justified by that fact alone. But there's one simple thing that we should all remember: human fallibility. Often our ideas of what is good or what is evil are clouded and even mistaken. To me, the most powerful thing we all have is skepticism, about ourselves and our own abilities."

For film events, see Page 36.

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