Reflexive Documentaries and the Fog of War.

In the film, The Fog of War, directed by Errol Morris, Morris takes an in depth look into the life and career of former Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara.  Morris’ film, however, seems to raise more questions than answers.  During the height of the Vietnam War and throughout its conclusion, many Americans blamed McNamara for the tragedies that occurred there.  Could McNamara truly be this monstrosity everyone made him out to be or is he only representative of a tumultuous period in our nation’s history? Or is Errol Morris trying to question the validity of film itself by leaving the audience with more questions than answers?

First it would be wise to see what type of documentary The Fog of War falls under. In Bill Nichols’ essay, “Documentary Modes of Representation”, Nichols creates a number of categories that seem to fit all documentaries.  They are expository, observational, interactive, or reflexive films. Judging from his article, The Fog of War seems to meet the criteria of a reflexive documentary.  When writing about reflexive documentaries in his essay, Nichols says “we now see or hear the filmmaker also engage in metacommentary, speaking to us less about the historical world itself, as in the expository and poetic or interactive and diaristic modes, than about the process of representation itself” (Nichols, 56).  In other words, reflexive documentaries call into the question not just the subjects of the film, but also the text of the film itself.  In Errol Morris’, The Fog of War, Morris interviews only one person throughout the film who is also the subject of the film, Robert S. McNamara.  How do you represent the life and career of one person in a film?  In Errol Morris’ case, he doesn’t nor does he try to.  In a radio interview with NPR, Morris remembers McNamara as being the “poster boy” for the Vietnam War and that “no two people can really agree about him” (NPR,   Through the use of re-enactments, archival footage, and other stylistic devices, Morris is attempting to address the audience with more questions than answers not only on the Vietnam War, but to question Robert McNamara’s status as “poster boy” of this war.

First, it is important to remember that in a reflexive documentary, the filmmaker does not claim to have all of the answers or present a story in an objective manner.  Rather, the film not only portrays the bias of the subjects, but to remind the audience that they are watching a film from the filmmaker’s point of view and that it will not hold many or all of the answers.  One example of this occurs in the part of the interview with Robert McNamara where he talks about the use of incendiary bombs on Japan in World War II.  In this scene, Morris makes use of jump cuts in order to show the audience that this event is what McNamara is recalling and may not be that accurate.  However, the use of jump cuts also suggests that Morris wants to show the audience that he left out some of the material in between the jump cuts, which means this film will be mostly from his point of view and that the film itself will not give an accurate portrayal of Robert McNamara.  The jump cuts also serve to remind the audience that they are watching a film and it allows the audience to stay on their feet and analyze the information as opposed to just sitting there and receiving the information being presented in the film.  In other words, the jump cuts invite the audience to think critically about the film itself.

Another aspect of reflexive documentaries, which Nichols mentions in his article, is that the filmmaker can have a presence in the film, often an on-camera presence (Nichols, 58).  By doing so, filmmakers place themselves in an opposite space of their subject and therefore become representatives of the film (Nichols, 59).  In The Fog of War, Errol Morris does make his presence known, but it is off-camera.  There are a few times during his interview with McNamara where the audience can hear Morris ask him a question or a follow-up question.  As a representative of this film, Morris is himself taking on the role of an audience member and raising questions about the events being recalled by McNamara.  The questions also serve another function and that is to show the audience that even though he is the filmmaker, he still does not have all of the answers.

A third aspect of reflexive documentaries that Nichols raises is the fact that the audience experiences a heightened consciousness of the text’s problematic relationship with them (Nichols, 60).  In other words, the audience is thinking more critically about the film itself and thus realizes that the film is not going to provide them with all of the answers.  There are certain editing techniques, which can aid in this heightened consciousness that the audience is experiencing (Nichols, 60).  One such technique is use of the long take (Nichols, 60).  In The Fog of War, there is a moment where Morris asks McNamara whether he feels responsible for the Vietnam War.  McNamara then gives an uncomfortable look into the camera, as there is a couple seconds of silence.  This long take is not just to show that McNamara is pondering this question deeply, but to also allow the audience time to ponder whether he might feel guilty or not or whether what McNamara is recalling is even accurate.

Another editing technique that aids in this heightened consciousness is the use of unexpected juxtapositions (Nichols, 61).  In most of Morris’ films, he has used juxtapositions to question the validity of his subject’s beliefs.  In the article, “Mirrors Without Memories: Truth, History, and the New Documentary”, Linda Williams talks about how Morris’ films do not try to portray an accurate version of the past, but rather shows how uncertain these recollections can be.  She says, “The past events examined in these films are not offered as complete, totalizable, apprehensible.  They are fragments, pieces of the past invoked by memory, not unitary representable truths…” (Williams, 15).  This quote actually sums up reflexivity accurately due to the fact that the film (especially Errol Morris’ films) is made up of incomplete fragments of history and memories and do not entirely represent the truth nor hold all or any of the answers.    For example, even though the film is about the life and career of Robert McNamara, it does not follow a chronological order.  The audience does not learn much about McNamara’s early life and not until about a quarter into the film.  The film also looks into most of the decisions McNamara made in throughout his career.  It is here that the audience can hear Errol Morris’ critical voice of McNamara.

In The Fog of War, Morris uses the archival footage, not to attempt to re-create the major wars of the 20th century, but as an ironic device to comment on McNamara’s decisions used in these wars.  The best example of this occurs towards the end of the film, where Robert McNamara is describing the peaceful ambitions he had for Vietnam.  Morris then shows a U.S. soldier firing his machine gun erratically into the jungle with McNamara’s voice underlying the image.  By doing this, Morris raises the question of how peaceful McNamara’s goals were for Vietnam.  Also, these ironic juxtapositions also serve to portray Morris’ anti-war sentiment, which reminds the audience that they are still watching a movie that is constructed in both the voice of Robert S. McNamara and Errol Morris.

Another excellent example of this occurs during the scene where McNamara is describing his role in the bombing of Japan during World War II, Morris shows archival footage of planes dropping bombs all over Japanese cities and the destructions the left behind.  He cross-cuts this footage with McNamara’s statements about how he was trying to make the bombings more efficient.  Here, Morris also uses archival footage combined with stylized animations to replace the bombs with numbers destroying cities.  This was done to show that McNamara can seem cold and calculating as those bombs or numbers (as McNamara might have seen them) are actually killing people below.

Another technique that Morris employs in his film is the use of stylized scenes.  These kinds of scenes (along with re-enactments) lend to the film’s reflexivity.  According to Nichols, “The introduction of the subjective elements of, for example, stylistic expressivity and character development can pose basic questions about the nature of certainty, the variability of factual interpretation, and the attitudinal relation of the filmmaker to his or her material” (Nichols, 71).  In other words, these stylized scenes are used to comment or critique what the subject is the saying.  In The Fog of War, there is a scene right after McNamara begins commenting on the importance of the actions taken during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Morris shows a row of dominoes falling down in which the last domino falls on Saigon in Vietnam.  According to an article about the film by Tom Ryan, Morris uses this scene to comment on the fact that this Anti-Communist way of thinking (the Domino Theory) is what played a major role in America’s participation in the Vietnam War (Ryan, 1).

These stylized scenes, however, function not only to critique what the subject is saying, but also to remind the audience that they are only watching a film from the filmmaker’s point of view.  One example of this occurs in the sequence where McNamara describes his earlier career as president of a car company and how he helped developed seat belt technology in cars.  As McNamara is describing how they made the driver safer, Morris cuts to a scene where skulls with towels wrapped around their heads are being dropped from the top of a staircase.  Morris uses this scene as an ironic device on how McNamara was so concerned with safety as President of the Ford Motor Company, but not as Secretary of Defense.  Morris uses scenes such as these to remind the audience that these scenes are representative of his voice in the film, which means that he is only a filmmaker and can only present his point of view in the film, which may not even be the truth.

In conclusion, The Fog of War raises more questions than it does answers.  When it comes to reflexive documentaries, this seems to be the case.  Reflexive documentaries seem to be catalysts of discourse, rather than engines of factual information.  In the end, we may never actually know the truth, but then again, isn’t that the story of filmmaking itself?



Works Cited.

Nichols, Bill.  “Documentary Modes of Representation.”  32-75.

Williams, Linda.  “Mirrors Without Memories: Truth, History, and the New Documentary.”  Film Quarterly.  Vol. 46.  3.  Spring, 1993.  9-21.

Ryan, Tom.  “Making History:  Errol Morris, Robert McNamara, and the Fog of War.”  Senses of Cinema.  March, 2004.

NPR.  “Robert McNamara Remembered.”  Here and Now.  07/06/2009.



Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: