'One Man’s Opinion'
By TONY EVANS
The fog of news
Tony Evans is a Wood River Valley
freelance writer, who’s developing a story for National Public Radio and teaches
creative writing classes at the Hailey Cultural Center and Light on the Mountain
At a time when news gathering
organizations suffer from credibility scandals and partisan perspectives,
moviegoers are increasingly turning to documentary films for answers. Two very
different feature-length documentaries opened in Ketchum theaters this summer.
Both films opened to critical international acclaim and both took a critical
look at U.S. foreign policy decisions. One filmmaker has an ax to grind. The
other allows time for the ax to grind itself.
Michael Moore’s polemical shock doc,
"Fahrenheit 911," which points out the special interests he believes are posing
as public policy within the Bush administration, has broken box-office records
and may sway voters in the upcoming presidential race. "The Fog of War,"
directed by former Berkeley University film archivist Erroll Morris, is made
from a series of tell-all interviews with World War II and Vietnam era U.S.
military advisor Robert S. McNamara. While "Fahrenheit 911" has undeniable
significance to current events, "The Fog of War" is even more harrowing in its
implications--that even "the best and the brightest" are capable of implementing
atrocities while caught up in the workings of what Dwight Eisenhower described
as the "military industrial complex."
When Michael Moore’s first hit documentary
"Roger and Me" premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in 1989, attacking
corporate out-sourcing at General Motors which left his hometown of Flint,
Mich., in shambles, he commented on his own success saying, "I broke the two
cardinal rules of making a documentary. I made money and I made people laugh."
But Moore’s David and Goliath formula and
ambush interview tactics do more than challenge the dry conventions of
documentary journalism. By seeming to bring the local café scuttlebutt into the
executive boardroom, Moore pursues a dream that democracy has had from the
beginning--to level the playing field of decision-making in society. His credo
reminds us that lampooning is still a serious business. And not without risk.
Reading the Patriot Act from a loudspeaker while driving an ice-cream truck
around Capitol Hill might have landed anyone else in St Elizabeth’s Hospital
Morris’ long view of the political career
of Robert S. McNamara is anything but a conspiracy flick. The subject of this
film is all too willing to expose himself, sometimes confirming our worst
suspicions. Morris the filmmaker is all but invisible.
"The Fog of War" is an account of
McNamara’s rambling confession at age 86 after a career as a top level U.S.
military advisor during World War II and the Vietnam conflict. He recalls the
night he gave orders to incinerate 100,000 civilians in the wooden city of Old
Tokyo with incendiary bombs during World War II, as well as the dubious reasons
the U.S. had for entering Vietnam. As a Ford Company executive between the two
wars, the brainy McNamara also made seatbelts a standard automobile accessory.
McNamara’s desire to unburden himself, and
the filmmaker’s willingness to listen, creates a document of personal reflection
on the awesome violence of the 20th century. Morris follows McNamara as he meets
with Russian and Viet Cong leaders after the Cold War has ended in an effort to
come to terms with his own legacy as a leader on the world stage.
While inconclusive and uncontroversial by
Moore’s standards, "The Fog of War" depends upon a deeper historical sense in
the viewer of the nature of power and conflict. Where Morris allows McNamara to
rationalize and explain his own actions, Moore takes license in assuming what
might be on Bush’s mind as he sits in a classroom of children following the 9/11
attacks on New York and Washington. Moore’s reading of these assumptions in a
dramatic voice-over while we are forced to consider Bush’s bewildered face in
slow motion is a manipulation of the medium of sound and image more suitable to
an art installation than news reporting.
Artists may indeed reflect a higher
sensibility than the mainstream news media can offer with its breakneck,
infomercial pace to "get the next story." But selectively arranging news bytes
and personal narrative in order to tell a pointed story, however necessary and
poignant, can be as subjective as reading animal shapes in the clouds. What
Moore gains in impact he may lose in credibility, ultimately threatening the
reputation documentarians have somehow made for themselves as the voices of the
nation’s social conscience.
Bob Edwards of National Public Radio
addressed the issue of credibility in the news media July 17 in Sun Valley
following a presentation on radio journalism. As a 25-year veteran he has seen
NPR become the most popular and trusted news source in radio, doubling its
listeners in the last 10 years.
Citing the scandals over fabricated New
York Times news stories, Edwards encouraged people to take in a wide variety of
news sources. "We need to pay more attention to what a reporter is doing," he
said, " to the care he takes in writing his story, rather than the name of the
This advice should go double when
considering the people behind the film camera. Our responses to their creative
interpretation of world events makes democracy as dangerous as ever for
potential tyrants, and as promising as ever for a world trying to come to its