The cinetrix is of a peripatetic ilk, much to the consternation of her loved ones, and prone to wandering wherever the day or night takes her. I haven't woken up in a bathtub full of ice, sans kidneys, yet, touch wood. But I suspect this tendency may be behind the 'Fesser's gift of mobile phones a few years back...
Anyway, last Thursday I struck out [a little early] from work. My plan: take in a Humanities Center film workshop lecture, "Documentary as 'Not Fiction'," being given by Jane Gaines. I was as interested in testing my tolerance for other cinema studies types as I was in the topic. Even though I don't have the requisite artful eyeglass frames, did I still have the stomach for the academy?
The world may never know. You see, no one in the advertised location of the talk knew anything about it. However, there was a swarm of lefty-liberal, silver-haired Cambridge academic grandees milling about in front of the screening room. Surely they weren't all there to hear Gaines [no offense]? Turns out, director Errol Morris was there to introduce a free [my favorite price] screening of his new documentary about Robert S. McNamara, The Fog of War.
I took a seat.
The film is amazing, an extraordinary dialogue between the 85-year-old McNamara and his 45-year-old self, the organization man in extremis [which also solves the problem of making a film with only one character]. Morris eschews strict chronology in favor of a conversational trajectory that leaps about as someone reminiscing might. He groups these sequences as 11 lessons, plus an epilogue.
It's what McNamara glosses over in his life, and what he returns to, that makes this such compelling cinema. Potentially inert or filmically dull information about the Cold War whiz-kid is enlivened using techniques such as Doc Edgerton-style stop-motion animation of reel-to-reels, teletypes, and even IBM punchcard readers; montage; and archival footage, in addition to the traditional talking head shots.
I could go on. But instead and forthwith, the 11 lessons, which, Errol Morris was quick to qualify after the film, were his own and not what McNamara might have chosen, although McNamara did concede they might have overlapped in places. The language of the lessons is drawn directly from statements McNamara made during the interview.
Lesson #1. Empathize with your enemy. This segment deals primarily with the Cuban missile crisis, and features shots of a calendar paperweight JFK gave McNamara with the crucial days highlighted. Also, a truly gorgeous cable from Kruschev that made me miss the era of statemen.
Lesson #2. Rationality will not save us. McNamara says he learned only in 1992 about the presence and number of missiles in Cuba back in 1962. "Cold War? Hell, it was a hot war!" Also, unnervingly cherubic McNamara baby pictures.
Lesson #3. There's something beyond oneself. That "S." in Robert S. McNamara? It stands for Strange. Really. He goes to Stanford, marries, and heads up Army Air Force Statistical Control at Harvard Business School. He also remembers the prices of everything. Everything!
Lesson #4. Maximize efficiency. Or, if you drop your specially designed to fly at 29,000 feet to avoid pilot casualties B-29s down to 5,000 feet, you can firebomb the shit out of Japan. Some of your guys might get shot, though. Morris very effectively throws up Japanese city names, what percentage [90%, say] was destroyed, and then the name of an equivalent-size American city or town.
Lesson #5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war. Firebombing the shit out of Japan? OK. Adding two A-bombs to the mix? Excessive. McNamara actually says that if we had lost, he and Curtis LeMay would have been prosecuted as war criminals. Oh yeah, and we learn about his brief leadership of Ford Motor Company.
Lesson #6. Get the data. Or, who buys cheap VWs, and how do we get their business? Also, the story of Ford's collection of car accident data, which included dropping human skulls down stairwells at the Cornell Aeronautical Lab to test impacts. Also, McNamara chose the spot in Arlington National Cemetary in which JFK is buried.
Lesson #7. Belief and seeing are both often wrong. Hearts and minds and rolling thunder in Viet Nam. LBJ and the Gulf of Tonkin opening the way for our Afghani and Iraqi imbroglios today.
Lesson #8. Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning. As I said, he comes out against unilateralism, but never against a president, sitting or otherwise. Also, he can't remember authorizing Agent Orange. That's right, I said he can't remember.
Lesson #9. In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil. Morris uses especially tight close ups as McNamara talks about the Quaker immolating himself to protest the war in 1965. "It was a tense period for my family."
Lesson #10. Never say never. Or never answer the question you've been asked. Answer the question you wish had been asked of you. McNamara laments that historians are never interested in counterfactuals--what might have been.
Lesson #11. You can't change human nature. In the fog of war, judgment and understanding were not accurate. He quotes T.S. Eliot: "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of our exploring shall be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."
Epilogue. In the choice between damned if you do and damned if you don't, McNamara opts for the latter.