Hot Docs 2010 includes a Ripping Reality program which features 10 influential documentaries from the last decade. One of the films being screened is Errol Morris’ Oscar-winning The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S McNamara (2003). It’s a brilliant, fascinating, and illuminating interview with Robert McNamara, who was the US Secretary of Defence during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam War.
Errol Morris (recipient of the Hot Docs Outstanding Achievement award in 2005) is one of the most talented filmmakers around, with a body of work that includes classics like The Thin Blue Line (about a wrongly-accused death row inmate, whose case is re-opened because of the film), Gates of Heaven (a film about pet cemeteries), Mr. Death (a look at a Holocaust denier), Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (which answer the question what do a lion-tamer, a mole-rat expert, a robot scientist, and a topiary gardener have in common), and Standard Operating Procedure (an examination of the infamous torture photos taken at Abu Ghraib prison).
The Fog of War is both a visual treat, and an interesting tour through 20th Century American history. Several years in the making, the film is based on over 20 hours of interview material of Robert McNamara ruminating on his childhood, his years at Ford, his time at the White House, and his looking back on the events (and his role in them) of World War II and the Cold War.
Morris alternates the interview footage with archive materials, declassified military documents, Ford car commercials, family photos and college yearbooks. Sometimes the footage supports and illustrates McNamara’s testimony, and at times, it contradicts it. Often accused of being one of the main architects of the Vietnam War, and a warmonger, McNamara has remained a controversial figure right up until his death last year. It’s fascinating to watch McNamara recount or explain events, justify actions, and sometimes try to evade blame or criticism. The film certainly shows how much of a ‘fog’ surrounded Vietnam, and draws some startling parallels to US involvement in Iraq (the invasion of which was less than a year before this film was released).
Morris also included several of his signature sequences of stylized, slow-motion footage that help to transition scenes, and often add ominous foreshadowing. From the slightly macabre linen-wrapped human skulls being dropped down a stairwell to test the effectiveness of seatbelts, to slow-motion dominoes tumbling over a map of Southeast Asia (to illustrate the ‘Domino theory’ of US Foreign Policy that was used to justify their presence in Vietnam) – they add a layer of inevitable doom to the film.
History, politics, and intrigue all wrapped up in a visually stunning and sophisticated film. And a phenomenal Phillip Glass soundtrack to boot. Highly recommended. It’s playing on Saturday, May 8th at 9:45pm. Check out the Hot Docs page for more details and links to purchase tickets.