Shooting history

Two films at the New York Film Festival show individuals coming to terms with the past - and despairing of the future.

Alan Miller

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We have all heard the saying that history is written by the victors. What is interesting today is the extent to which history is contested. As the battle for ideas and minds has diminished in the real world, revisiting the past has become more prevalent (1).

The Fog of War is Errol Morris’ captivating film about former US defence secretary Robert S McNamara. Inspired by In Retrospect, McNamara’s memoirs, the film explores McNamara’s view of his own personal responsibility for actions carried out by the USA between 1961 and 1967, while he was serving under Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson (2).

Errol Morris tells McNamara’s story well: how a man educated in a shack aspired to be the best in his class, managing to get to Harvard and become one of the youngest professors there; how war was central to McNamara’s consciousness and life. We relive McNamara’s earliest memories – the images of the celebrations in 1918 at the end of the Great War, and Woodrow Wilson’s claim that it was the ‘war to end all wars’.

Throughout the film, Morris uses his Interrotron – which utilises two teleprompters and cross connectors – with a projected image on the screen of the camera allowing the interviewee to look directly into camera and see the interviewer. He used this device previously in Fast, Cheap and Out of Control and Mr Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A Leuchter – but it is far more captivating in this film.

We get up close and personal with McNamara, a man who has reached the highest levels of American achievement. Morris, with his razor wit, takes us on McNamara’s journey, from Ivy School professor to president of Ford and then to the Pentagon. McNamara’s honey-croaky voice accompanies the images of war and destruction throughout. At 85, he is still very much a raconteur.

The Fog Of War – a title that refers to Carl von Clausewitz’s On War – raises questions of morality and ethics (3). McNamara seems to be in a perpetual debate with himself about the ethics of war. In some brilliantly shocking sequences, we see how the firebombing of Japan was so devastating; how in one night, 100,000 people were killed by the aerial campaign conducted by Colonel Curtis LeMay.

McNamara also asks whether the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was really necessary, after US forces had already devastated much of Japan. He shares Le May’s admission that, had the Americans lost the war, they would have been treated as war criminals for what they did in Japan.

Throughout the film McNamara raises tough questions, such as how much evil one must engage in, in order to do good. However, his answers to such questions are somewhat disingenuous. He (and Morris) ends up portraying events as being about ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. General Le May is the obvious bad guy (with Philip Glass’ thundering musical score rumbling every time we see him), who was hell-bent on destroying everything and everyone. It is Le May who, having firebombed 67 Japanese cities, went on to recommend smashing Cuba during the missile crisis of 1956.

In contrast, President Kennedy (the good guy) was able to empathise with the Soviets because of the advice they had from the attaché who knew Kruschev personally. ‘But we invaded…’, we hear Morris call from behind camera. ‘Yes, in the Bay of Pigs and we tried to assassinate Castro too’, McNamara replies, not really comprehending the collapse of his argument.

The Cuba segment is most interesting, representing the idea that a few rational people could almost destroy a part of the world with nuclear weaponry. Morris chops the film up in to ‘lessons’ based on McNamara’s comments, and we are told that rationality is no prevention against war. It is suggested that, by the same token, reason is no prevention, for we ‘all have our limits’. This is the film’s central sentiment – that annihilation (nuclear or otherwise) is only a moment away.

McNamara is a sensitive soul, crying at various points, and showing that he is ‘in touch’ with his emotions – clearly an imperative of our therapeutic age. The end of his political career came about during Vietnam – but not before he endorsed Johnson’s wish to continue the war. In the film, he attempts another double-whammy by saying the war was terrible, but Johnson did what he thought was best.

This is the most infuriating thing about the film. We have a very smart adult behaving like a juvenile. He takes actions and makes decisions – then ends up questioning them later on. We get the impression that, faced with similar decisions, he would behave the same way all over again – for this is not really an attempt to dissect humanity’s predisposition to war, so much as one man trying to reconcile himself with his actions.

Morris, who was an anti-Vietnam veteran at Wisconsin University, has made a fascinating film of McNamara’s life. Ultimately, though, it is a film that plays into the theme of apologising for actions. In recent years, there has been a vogue for American statesmen to apologise for slavery; other leaders around the world have said sorry for the actions of previous generations of leaders. Here, it is clear that Morris has a similar thing in mind – and while McNamara doesn’t apologise as such, the theme of the film is the anxiety and difficulty of ruling.

In our age obsessed with inner torment and strife, there seems to be a lack of objectivity. In this light, I asked Morris about his contextualisation of things beyond McNamara’s dialogue, and he responded by saying that enough had been written and said elsewhere on these subjects. This was somewhat of a cop out, as Morris has made a film all about one man’s journey and yet simultaneously used it to present an idea – that humanity is obsessed with war and devastation, and reason cannot prevent these things.

Morris claims that after 9/11, his film about McNamara became increasingly relevant. He enjoyed the irony that while the film dealt with the past, it could easily be about events ‘four or five days ago’. So what we really have is an innate destructive nature – humanity – with very little prospect for anything better, in some historical continuum.

Radicals who once believed in the transforming capacity of humans now seem to believe that we are all doomed to play out our inherent bad tendencies. Wearing our hearts on our sleeves is seen as a way of exorcising this in the new age of confession. But I think what we really need are some challenging ideas and discussion – to create a new way of understanding and acting upon the world that we live in.

In Denis Arcand’s brilliant The Barbarian Invasions (Miramax), responsibility and history are also major themes. Remy Girard is a spirited and lustful professor of history in Quebec, who divorced long ago due to his love of other women. His son Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau) is an investment banker based in London who has had a major rift with his father. His mother Louise (Dorothee Berryman) convinces him to return home as his father is dying.

Sebastien sees Remy (Remy Girard) as cold and unreasonable – while to Remy, Sebastien represents a component of the ‘barbarian invasions’, all the negative changes in the world. Sebastien, however, pours all his energies into reuniting the friends of Remy’s past. This – alongside the decision to source heroin to hold his father’s suffering at bay – sets in motion a film that manages to intertwine intellectual ideas with strong ensemble work and a very moving story.

The professor rails against most things, yet ultimately he is dissatisfied with his own achievements. Death, life, religion, art, politics, but mostly history, are the themes that bounce around in this well-crafted film. It took Arcand a year to write the script (which won the Cannes Film Festival best script this year), as a follow-up to The Decline of The American Empire, made in 1986. Seventeen years later, how have these characters, who examined sex, love, food, wine and politics, moved on?

Remy’s great hunger for life is clear in the way he deals with his own death. The film covers public health, the relationship between America and Canada and a coming to terms with life. What is extraordinary is how light Arcand’s touch is; the satire is graceful, and he never seems to be pushing ideas.

Yet ideas – big ones – dominate the film. Remy reflects on how he and his friends read Sartre and became existentialists, read Marcuse and became Marxists, before turning into feminists and then deconstructionists. And now? I asked Arcand if he believed that the only hope for humanity, at a time when big ideas appear to have been extinguished, is through the meaning garnered from personal relationships. He said that universal ideas are very difficult to articulate today, and while not being a prophet, it seemed interpersonal ties were all that we could do with.

Arcand said something else that was even more revealing – that history was the key theme of the film and that in 200 years’ time, when they looked back on the twentieth century, they would remember…the camps. He cited Solzenhitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and Primo Levi’s If This is a Man – both books that make an appearance in his film, when Nathalie (Marie-Josee Croze, who won Best Actress prize this year at Cannes) looks through Remy’s library at the end of the film.

So when all is said and done, Arcand believes that the sum total of the twentieth century was devastation. It is sad that the century that most represents our huge leap forward – where technology and standards of living and health improved beyond all recognition and where we experimented with different ways of organising our lives – is seen in such a one-dimensional way. In fact, we don’t know what people will say about the twentieth century in 200 years’ time – but Arcand has captured the contemporary sense of despair fittingly.

The Barbarian Invasions is not so much about terrorists from abroad wreaking havoc or drug smugglers from the Third World – both of which are considered in the film. Rather it is an implosion of belief and conviction in the human project at home. But bravo Monsieur Arcand, bravo indeed. The 17-day New York Film Festival, with less than 30 films showing, has shown that quality still outweighs quantity.

Alan Miller is a film maker. Eroica! will be screened on PBS in America on 9 December 2003 as part of Independent Lens.

The Fog Of War (Sony Pictures Classics) is released in the USA on 26 December 2003. The Barbarian Invasions (Miramax) is released in the USA on 21 November 2003

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(1) Frank Furedi points this out in Mythical Past, Elusive Future; History and Society in an Anxious Age, Pluto, 1993

(2) In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons in Vietnam, Robert S McNamara, 1996

(3) In On War, Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote: ‘War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.’

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