December 18, 2003
S.O.D. Off


Since we here at low culture pride ourselves on being narrowly focused—as opposed to being interested in all of the cultural offerings presented at this time of year—we decided to do our year-end "best of" list all about one film, director Errol Morris' Fog of War.

Not ones to be pushed around by Harvey Weinstein and his freelance prestige-film army, we decided we'd let ourselves fall in lock step behind the producers of Fog of War (and the good people at The Week, who invited us to an advance screening of the documentary).

Best Unintentional Analogy to Current Events: Morris has said he initially began to rigorously pursue interviewing former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara after he released his semi-confessional book, "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam," in the mid-1990s. In other words, well before obscure conceits such as "chads" and "Texas Rangers owner" and "staying the peace in Iraq" entered the mainstream lexicon. The 20 hours of on-camera interviews Morris eventually secured with McNamara took place after the events of September 11th, 2001, but up to and during the American invasion of Iraq, giving the resultant conversations about the unilateralist war in Vietnam a tone of eerie prescience. "In retrospect," indeed.

De-classified Oval Office recordings used in the film's coverage of early 1964 suggest, however, that contrary to those who tarred Vietnam solely as "McNamara's War," it was President Lyndon B. Johnson who, a handful of months after his predecessor's November 1963 assassination in Dallas, began pressuring his inherited Secretary of Defense to take a course of action in southeast Asia. Perhaps, 40 years from now, some enterprising filmmaker will release documentation asserting that McNamara's current counterpart, Donald Rumsfeld, reluctantly spent the past few years succumbing to his superiors' ill-advised wishes regarding the present-day "Middle East Makeover". Or perhaps not.

Best Presidential Indictment by way of De-Classified Archival Footage: Revelatory anecdotes such as those mentioned above come to light through the release of Kennedy and Johnson administration documents and tape recordings made up through 1965. And earlier in the film, when McNamara discusses his advisory role in the aerial bombardment of Japan in the second World War, the suggestion of sorrow we hear in his voice is visually punctuated by footage of bombs being dropped from B-series bombers (in cinematic terms, the wide angle shot) and the tragedies which resulted: footage of Japanese cities in flames, alongside descriptions of the 100,000 people who died in a single night as a result of these firebombs (the close-up).

You witness a single bomb being dropped from its bay, and then you wait, and wait, and wait, as the plane's camera records the bomber's flight above the earth below, and the descent of the bomb in question, and you wait some more as you eye the terrain which scrolls beneath you like an unfurled parchment, because you know at any moment, that bomb from a handful of seconds ago will hit the ground. And it will be terrible. And much like that parchment, Japan will burn. (Some brief samples of this footage can be seen on the film's website.)

Best Usage of Special Effects and 3D Software to Convey Mortality (and Morality): Prefacing these disturbing bombing sequences, McNamara relates his experiences serving as one of the chief architects for WWII's lethal bombardments, contextualizing the process as one of working within the confines of efficiency and proportionality. What is the value of one human death? How many people, innocent or otherwise, need to die to safely ensure that your side emerges victorious? If 100,000 people burn to death in one city, in one night, is this equivalent to annihilating the entire city of Cleveland? Nagasaki? Boston? Osaka? Los Angeles? Would we miss midtown New York if it were to be gone tomorrow?

In a very stirring illustration of the solemnity, and, perhaps, the cynicism of this sort of decision-making, Morris unveils a bomber's cargo bay looming far above the ground below. As its payload is dropped, we see not bombs, but numbers which hurl themselves upon the landscape: the calculus of death, if you will. If this sounds didactic, it is, but in the very best sense of that word's meaning.

Worst Usage of Cliche-Ridden "Tipping Dominoes" Analogy (Honorable Mention): This almost speaks for itself, but here's some clarification on the matter. Picture a map of southeast Asia sprawled across a horizontal plane. Then take note of the neatly aligned rows of dominoes standing tall above this map. Then witness someone topple the first few dominoes, while McNamara's archival voice speaks of consequences both intended and unintended, and the unpredictable nature of events, and watch those dominoes tumble and fall, before righting themselves again much later in the film as the same footage is played in reverse while McNamara narrates the events surrounding his "apology" for the war.

This last device noticeably stands out amidst the emotional resonance of the rest of the film, and almost comes off as very moving, but that's probably just the repercussions of Philip Glass's moody and reflective score.

We hope you enjoyed our 2003 "Best of" list! Check back next winter for our year-end thoughts on 2004's Jonathan Demme remake of The Manchurian Candidate.

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