"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Among the insults directed at Robert S. McNamara during his years as secretary of defense for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson was that he was less a man than an IBM machine with legs. To the people who came to call the Vietnam conflict “McNamara’s war,” the man was the epitome of the soulless technocrat. Having come to the Department of Defense straight from the presidency of Ford Motor Company, McNamara was seen as treating war like a corporate enterprise, coldly detached from the human cost of his decisions.
That’s why it’s ironic that, of all the documentary filmmakers he should agree to sit down and be interviewed by, McNamara should give his consent to Errol Morris, whose work has always been so distanced from the people he puts on screen.
“The Fog of War,” which is subtitled “Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” isn’t a hatchet job. Morris isn’t out to “get” McNamara. He doesn’t trap McNamara in the frame and turn him into a caricature, as he did with the interviewees in pictures like “Gates of Heaven” and “The Thin Blue Line.” It might have been pointless to try, since, unlike most of the people who appear in Morris’ films, McNamara is used to appearing in the public eye and knows how to handle himself.
The problem with “The Fog of War” isn’t one of balance. Barring the convictions people already hold about the former secretary of defense, it would be very hard to come away from the movie feeling it either fully condemns or fully exculpates McNamara. The man himself is both distant and frequently emotional (his voice breaks with tears several times in the course of the film), willing to examine his actions — not just in Vietnam but during World War II and the Cuban missile crisis — and stubbornly unwilling to issue a mea culpa (that itself seems both arrogant and humble). The McNamara we see in “The Fog of War” is as much of a pickle as he’s always been, seeming both searching and blind, hounded and complacent. He isn’t haughty and dismissive in the way that still makes Henry Kissinger so hateful. McNamara’s actions may fill us with repugnance, but you’d have to blindly hate the man not to acknowledge his intelligence or his willingness to talk, often bluntly, about his time in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
If Morris had simply concluded that he was dealing with an enigma, this investigation into McNamara’s psyche might have been intellectually satisfying. But, as in his other films, Morris feels much more concerned with aesthetics than with moral or historical questions.
The interviews with McNamara were filmed with the gizmo Morris calls the “Interrotron.” Morris places his subject in one room in front of a camera and conducts the questioning from another room. There is a small monitor above the camera lens on which the interviewee sees Morris asking the questions. The filmed result is the subject speaking directly to the camera, and in effect to the audience. Morris has said that he believes this results in true first-person cinema. Well, that’s nonsense. The interviewee is still presented as Morris wants him to be seen and through the footage Morris surrounds the interview clips with. The director remains free to take any attitude he wishes toward his subjects. Furthermore, if one of the aims of a good interviewer is to get the subject into a state where he or she is receptive to being questioned, you can’t expect that of a person sitting alone in a room talking to a camera.
What seems so strange about Morris’ claim that his method results in more natural interviews is how much it fails to take into account. People engaged in the rhythms of an interview reveal themselves in ways that the audience can see (if Morris were dealing with fiction, the supposition of his method would be that a dialogue couldn’t possibly be as revealing as a monologue). And Morris doesn’t seem much interested in naturalism when he shoots McNamara from skewed camera angles, or layers Philip Glass’ noodling (which Morris praises in the production notes for its “existential dread”) on the soundtrack.
The strangest thing about Morris’ method is that it undervalues his considerable abilities as an interviewer. Frequently in the course of “The Fog of War,” we hear Morris’ disembodied voice interrogating McNamara, and he’s an alert, astute interviewer. That was obvious from a recorded conversation toward the end of Morris’s “The Thin Blue Line,” where Morris is heard talking with the convict David Harris. Morris brings Harris very close to confessing to the murder that the film’s subject, Randall Adams, was charged with. (The critic Ray Sawhill said that he listened to this exchange and thought, “My God, Morris is thinking on his feet while talking to a psychopath.”)
There’s nothing objectionable about documentarians who try to give their work aesthetic value. The film “Lodz Ghetto,” while being a devastating account of life in the Polish ghetto, had a beautiful poetic structure. The trouble comes when the aesthetics come first. Several times during “The Fog of War,” Morris includes montages of charts and documents relating to the period McNamara is discussing (the World War II firebombing of Tokyo under Gen. Curtis LeMay; various bombings in Vietnam). The montages increase in speed as they go on. The meaning of these sequences seems to be that the specifics of each mission are beside the point, that they are just facts and figures which can’t square with the attendant bloodshed.
Perhaps this is not what Morris intends, but the questions Morris is debating in these sections about the morality and effectiveness of the bombings makes you want more information, not less — and this reduction of everything to a blur of documents comes across as a too easy point. And there’s something cheap about the repeated visual of dominoes falling across a map of Southeast Asia, one Morris returns to again and again and again, long after we’ve grasped its somewhat paltry import.
If you can scrape off the movie’s aesthetic pretension and its portentous longueurs, there are hard questions being investigated here. Morris has included some extraordinary recordings made in the Kennedy White House during the debates over the Cuban missile crisis. They will not do much to strengthen the argument of those who claim that it was Kennedy’s steadfastness that averted Armageddon. Hard on the heels of each other, the White House received two contradictory telexes from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. The first promised to withdraw missiles from Cuba in exchange for the Americans’ promise not to invade the island. The second, bearing Khrushchev’s name but apparently written by Kremlin hard-liners, threatened to retaliate for any nuclear strike on the USSR. We hear Kennedy meeting with his staff and saying that he doesn’t believe Khrushchev will back down.
Tommy Thompson, a specialist on the USSR who was advising the president, states his disagreement and argues that the U.S. should simply ignore the second, more aggressive telex and respond to the conciliatory first one. Kennedy has been so widely praised for the courage he showed during the crisis (among other places, in the film “Thirteen Days”) that it may be tough for some to acknowledge the voice here of the cold warrior willing to risk nuclear war, even when faced with a solution that would allow both countries to save face. This may not be a popular view, but it isn’t pro-communist to conclude that, from what we hear in the movie, Khrushchev had a much better grasp of what was really at stake.
Inevitably, most of the interest in “The Fog of War” will focus on McNamara and Vietnam. But it’s the section on the fire-bombing of Tokyo during World War II that is the most provocative and provides an insight into the mindset of McNamara. He is at his most straightforward, his most unflinchingly honest, in this section, and any decent person will be repelled by what he has to say. I don’t mean to criticize him. Virtually all the great memoirs and great literature to emerge from the two world wars — I’m thinking of work by Robert Graves, E.B. Sledge, Paul Fussell, William Manchester and James Jones, and the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Edmund Blunden — would affirm that view of war.
This section is complicated by the presence of Gen. Curtis LeMay. The “bomb ‘em all” reputation LeMay garnered during Vietnam made him seem to be a liberal’s nightmare version of a military man. The images we see of him here — stout, with a stogie stuck in his unforgiving face — are exactly what an antiwar caricaturist might come up with. LeMay conducted (and McNamara helped to plan) the March 1945 bombing of Tokyo that killed 100,000 civilians and burned 50 square miles of the city, whose buildings were largely made of wood. McNamara says that LeMay’s rationale is not one sensitive people could abide. And he quotes LeMay as telling him that if the Allies had lost, both he and McNamara would have been prosecuted as war criminals.
What may be so hard to accept here is that LeMay’s thinking is appropriate to war. Put in its crudest terms, it is the belief that the object of war is to kill more of the enemy than they kill of you. But as Paul Fussell observed in his essay “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” “the farther from the scene of the horror, the easier the talk,” by which he means that it’s easy to condemn anyone’s actions from a distance. There is, as Fussell recognized, a moral cushiness to the sensibility that deplores the Tokyo bombing (and also, of course, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs) that helped bring the war to a speedy conclusion, and would have accepted much higher casualties on both the American and Japanese sides in the planned land invasion of Japan.
Unfortunately, that cushiness can be heard in Morris’ questioning during this section, a barely repressed incredulity at McNamara’s explication of LeMay’s insistence that his duty was to defeat the Japanese while saving as many American lives as he could. What comes through in that section is Morris’ distance from the experience he is describing, how easy it is for him to make a moral judgment in a situation with no clean alternatives.
Morris doesn’t fall into that during the Vietnam sections, and it’s fair to say that what we’ve learned about McNamara by then — his acceptance of duty to his superiors, his understanding that grasping the essential ugliness of war can exist side by side with waging it — leads into the hubris of Vietnam. Morris adopts something close to the standard distaste for LBJ, presenting him as a gung-ho warrior, and McNamara and others in his Cabinet as working to serve his wishes. What he doesn’t consider, as Robert Dallek details in his two-volume biography of Johnson, is how much Johnson, the graduate of a Texas teachers’ college, felt himself the intellectual inferior of all the Ivy League men who worked for him.
It’s here, though, that the paradox of McNamara really opens up. His private pessimism about winning the war contrasts sharply with the public optimism we see in newsreel clips from the time. Watching these, it’s hard not to feel as appalled as McNamara’s critics have always been about the discrepancy between his knowledge and his public statements. Morris makes it difficult, though, to dismiss McNamara’s contention that his job was strictly to do the bidding of the president. McNamara also feels it would have been disloyal to criticize the war after he had left the Pentagon, and you understand why he would not want to betray the people he worked with. On the other hand, it’s reasonable to ask whether McNamara’s moral qualms about such a betrayal might not have been outweighed by his historical responsibility to speak out on the deepening futility of the war.
McNamara doesn’t provide an easy answer. You could see, as many have, the grudging mea culpas he has offered as too little, too late. But the reluctant quality of those pronouncements may be a reflection of just that: McNamara’s realization that an apology is a meager thing in the face of war. Similarly, his refusal to give his personal feelings about the war suggests, as his critics have said, a man divorced from the human consequences of his actions but also a recognition that he must be judged on his actions rather than his private feelings.
This is the frustration of Robert McNamara, his simultaneous ability to seem obsequious and weirdly honorable, honest and evasive. But any serious plumbing of this enigma gets lost in Morris’ quest for aesthetics. The clips of McNamara’s battered old bullfrog countenance come to seem like just another of Morris’s visual motifs. Even the division of the movie into 11 “lessons” smacks of a design being imposed where no design really fits.
It’s not that Errol Morris is intellectually incapable of delving into the unanswerable questions this movie poses. And no one could have held “The Fog of War” wanting if Morris had concluded that it’s impossible to get all the way to the bottom of Robert McNamara. But explicating an enigma is not the same thing as blurring it with artistic ambitions. The thickest fog in this documentary has been conjured not by McNamara, but by Errol Morris.
Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.More Charles Taylor.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)