The Crime of the Oversimplified: Errol Morris’ Military Documentaries as Cinematic Critique


[Denne teksten ble først publisert i Wuxia 1/12]


Robert McNamara, USAs forsvarsminister 1961–68, i Errol Morris’ The Fog of War (2003).

The political critiques of a documentary film can be as clear and orderly as a tract or as subtle and nuanced as a poem. The political feature films of Errol Morris – particularly The Fog of War (2003) and Standard Operating Procedure (2008), his documentaries about well-known figures in the American military arena – inhabit a twilight region in between. Accessible and seemingly straightforward, they nonetheless shy away from direct judgment of their subjects. Rather than critiquing the individual men and women that are their ostensible subjects, the films’ primary concern is critiquing the over-simplified and de-contextualized narratives that mainstream American media has created and popularized to explain them – and explain them away.

Although his documentaries are largely interview-based, Morris does not use a traditional method of filming his subjects being interviewed. His dissatisfaction with conventional interview footage – whose subjects looked near the camera rather than directly into the camera – led him to develop a complex, multi-lens contraption he calls the «Interrotron». With this device, a subject looks at and answers the questions of the filmmaker’s image, which they see on a modified teleprompter before them – the filmmaker himself may even be in another room. «When someone watches my films, it is as though the characters are talking directly to them … There is no third party,» Morris explained to FLM Magazine in 2004. «On television we’re used to seeing people interviewed Sixty Minutes-style. There is Mike Wallace or Larry King, and the camera is off to the side. Hence, we, the audience, are also off to the side. We’re the fly-on-the-wall, so to speak, watching two people talking. But we’ve lost something.»

Morris' Interrotron-teknikk.

Morris’ Interrotron-teknikk.

The remarkable openness that Morris elicits from his interviewees may result in part from the peculiarity of his interviewing apparatus: The Interrotron is so unlike other familiar devices that it may startle subjects into candor. (Named by art historian (and Morris’s wife) Julia Sheehan as a neologism combining the words «interview» and «terror», the Interrotron has recently become available to other documentarians at the website The Interrotron may also create a feeling of solidarity between the subject and the filmmaker: both are being filmed simultaneously and are therefore «equal». The Interrotron also affords the subject the impression of speaking to another person rather than to a cold camera lens and film crew, as they would with a traditional set-up; Morris compares being interviewed this way to «watching a TV set that really cares and wants to know more».

The interviews in The Fog of War are entirely focused on one subject: Robert S. McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and an architect of the Vietnam War. Unlike the films of Michael Moore or Nick Broomfield, Morris’s films strenuously avoid leveling explicit accusations of «right» or «wrong» at the actions of their central protagonists/antagonists. While Moore’s Roger and Me (1989) and Broomfield’s Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003) make clear their directors’ opinions about exactly where culpability lies, Morris’s first target isn’t McNamara, but the oversimplified prevailing public view of McNamara and his role in history. Morris takes aim at this target by creating a nuanced portrait of his subject and listening carefully to – even illustrating – his subject’s words. «I’ve never really believed in that style of interviewing where you’re supposed to coax some kind of answer out of your subject—particularly the answer that someone doesn’t want to give,» Morris explained to me after a Cannes screening of the film. «McNamara does not say, ‘I’m sorry.’ He does not say, ‘I did something wrong.’ He says that the war was wrong. [And] that’s one of the things that disturbs – and infuriates people.»

The Fog of War (2003).

The Fog of War (2003).

If viewers are appalled at the results of McNamara’s approach to his job as Secretary of Defense, Morris might personally agree; but he saves this admission for interviews and conversations outside the frame of the film. «It’s very easy to imagine the [journalist and historian David] Halberstam view of McNamara: Best and the Brightest, Number-Cruncher, Statistician, Guy Who Couldn’t Relate To People, Devoid of Human Values, Ethical Sensibility, tra-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la,» Morris explained to me, finally admitting: «I don’t think it’s true of McNamara. I think the disturbing thing is that this was a man with real ethical dimension who did something terrible – something that never will be redeemed.»

In Standard Operating Procedure, Morris turned his attention to the small group of Abu Ghraib military police whose photographs of each other torturing male detainees – many of whom had not even been charged with crimes – came to define the conflict in Iraq and became an infamous low point for America’s reputation abroad. In counterpoint to The Fog of War, which told the story of someone at the top of the chain of command, S.O.P. turned viewers’ attention to the lowest rungs of the military totem pole. Yet like The Fog of War, the film used stylized illustrations or re-enactments to visually reiterate the words of its interviewees, albeit with dubious success. (The critic J. Hoberman wrote that «for a movie that aspires to be a critique of representation» these are «frantic» and «superfluous» to the point of «self-defeating»).

Standard Operating Procedure (2008).

Standard Operating Procedure (2008).

Also similarly to The Fog of War is Morris’s underlying goal with Standard Operating Procedure: He was not interested in using his film to prosecute subjects or prove them innocent or guilty, good or evil; but rather to re-contextualize their story and take aim at a common public narrative that he saw as having been dangerously over-simplified. This time, the widespread story in the media was that the MPs – Charles Graner, Ivan Frederick, Lynndie England, and Sabrina Harman, and their cohorts – were simply «a few bad apples» solely responsible for their sadistic treatment of Iraqi detainees. The implications of this narrative were profound: It absolved the military brass of all responsibility. Morris begs to differ.

«[The] hooded man on the box with wires, nicknamed Gilligan, was standard operating procedure; and the pyramid, or the leash, was a criminal act. Well, the question, again filled with irony: Why is one a criminal act? Why is one standard operating procedure?» he wondered to me when we spoke in 2008. «What is clear is that the army, as a matter of policy, was involved in using American females to degrade Iraqi men. They were putting them in stress positions; they were stripping them naked; they were hooding them … The idea that these ideas solely came from the ‘bad apples’ – that it came from Chuck Graner, and Ivan Frederick, and Lynndie England et al. – is just simply wrong.»

In both these political films about the military, Morris’s great and overarching critique is of the oversimplified media story, the de-contextualized headline. His aspiration for the films is that they re-introduce the real-world nuance into real-world narratives which have been stripped by a mainstream desire for simplicity, manageability, and a clear differentiation between «us» and «them». If Morris’s subjects are merely criminals, the problems they raise would be resolved with their punishment. But if they are seen with all the complexity and humanity that we viewers afford ourselves, they – and we – don’t get off so easily.