The Fog of War / The Unknown Known (Errol Morris, 2003 and 2013)

Everything seems amazing in retrospect

US foreign policy (all right, let's just say US foreign warfare) over the last one hundred years is an amazing field of study. From the heroic efforts of WW2 to the crushing disaster in Vietnam and the sinister motivations lingering around Iraq: these conflicts have shaped the world. They bring along heavy emotions and their historical value is formed and reformed, every year, in the alligator pit of public opinion.

Errol Morris made two documentaries, one in 2003 and the other released just now in 2014, out of exhaustive interviews held with two key administrators from the past: Secretaries of Defense Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld. The first held his position from 1961 to 1968, the last from 1975 to 1977 and 2001 to 2006, but their lives span all the wars and conflicts the United States participated in during the last century.

We see black and white footage of Kennedy appointing McNamara, hear how he was enraptured by the victorious crowd after the Great War, his role in the burning of Tokyo and diligent, calculating approach to dealing with the dangers of the Cold War. He has eleven lessons in store for us, taken from a long career. Rumsfeld's story centers on his political rise and travels to the Middle East, and ultimately how he dealt with the Iraq war and its dubious legal grounds. His legacy is described in tens of thousands of memos that he dictated, called 'snowflakes', that trickled down the chain of command like a blizzard.

A startling yet slow realization creeps up on you during these films: exactly how little is known at the top. Well, not exactly little, but how hard the decisions of these ministers are. It's easy, in our down-below world of processed views and digestible media coverage, to think the quandaries of statecraft are easily distilled into matters of right and wrong. McNamara and Rumsfeld put the lie to that idea and these documentaries express it in the fullest sense. They are not named as they are by coincidence. Both the 'fog of war' and the 'unknown known' are expressions of how much of it is guesswork, how leaders are barely scraping by on information that could very well be false and misleading. How impossible it is to predict the outcome of any such complicated scenario as a war.

They are also expressions of obfuscation and misdirection. These men of, visibly, crisp intelligence, were each of them forced to take the utmost philosophical of stances to make any decision at all. We see it in their answers, often removed from any pragmatism and more than a little high concept. I'd concede Rumsfeld to be the slippery kind of politician who wouldn't answer a clear question, though McNamara is certainly more of a straight shooter, but they don't exactly aim to pull the wool over our eyes. When Rumsfeld throws yet another aphorism at us, such as “all generalizations are false, including this one”, he means it as a feint, but also as an interesting insight into his thinking. This is the approach you'd need to make the kind of decisions and lead the kind of life these people did.

There is no more fitting a choice for the soundtrack to this than Philip Glass. His rhythmic undulations evoke the coming of war, though rather its looming preparation than thunderous end point; the repetitious drone of frightful progress. Taking over for the later film is Danny Elfman, who does a fine job mimicking Glass' style while bringing familiar Elfman sounds: flighty choirs and harsh brass. Both scores work exceedingly well in lending a sense of urgency and dire portent to the interviews.

However craftfully these documentaries are made, at their heart is a simple series of interviews Errol Morris held with these two historic figures. He tries earnestly to take a dispassionate picture, but occassionally unmasks his stance when an off-the-cuff reaction is teased out of him. “Really?!” he shouts in disbelief as Rumsfeld tells him he never read a specific document detailing torture in Guantánamo Bay. There is, however, no intention to nail these figures to any wall. This is not Frost versus Nixon. Barring the occasional quick debunking with archive footage the subjects are free to place their own stamp on the matter.

Of the two, McNamara is closest to a human being. Perhaps this is because he's farther removed from his time in the field, whereas Rumsfeld is still today a controversial person. The former feels at times tortured by past mistakes, the latter is quicker to display his toothy smile – the charismatic, slippery politician to McNamara's sincere technocrat. Though both take a philosophical stance to their leadership, one of them employs it in part to throw up an infuriating smokescreen, the other casts a shadow of true wisdom. Again, it is McNamara who tries to grapple with the moral implications of his actions and that of his nation. What is the nature of justice? “How much evil must we do in order to do good?” These are profoundly interesting questions, which The Fog of War effectively explores. The Unknown Known becomes a different thing altogether: the portrait of an illusive man against the background of very real, very terrible actions.

Watching these two documentaries back to back, you can't help but gain insight into what it takes to govern a state, and how little is known by the ones who do. Masterfully put together and evocative for its historical implications, human insight and hypnotic sound & vision.

Roderick Leeuwenhart