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Friday, July 30, 2004


'One Man’s Opinion'

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 Spiritual Center.

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 under observation.

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 news source."

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 senses.



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