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The World According to Errol Morris

March 21, 2010
by Pat Joseph
a black and white photograph of Erol Morris interviewing someone

An interrogation of the director of “The Fog of War” and “Standard Operating Procedure”

Errol Morris studied philosophy at Cal. He was on the doctoral track, but left in 1975 before receiving his Ph.D. It wasn’t a happy parting. Years later, in a New Yorker profile, he said he had wanted to write his thesis on “the insanity plea and movie monsters and certain mechanistic fantasies we have about criminal behavior,” and that his feelings were hurt “when Berkeley just sort of kicked my ass out of there.”

Academia’s loss was filmmaking’s gain. Today, Morris, who has directed eight feature-length documentaries, including A Brief History of Time, The Thin Blue Line, and Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, is widely credited with reviving and revitalizing the form. At the same time, some critics have questioned his frequent use of reenactments and almost fetishistic attention to detail.

He is probably best known for The Fog of War, his documentary on fellow Berkeley alum, Robert McNamara ’37, who served as Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. The film, which won an Academy Award in 2004, is an intimate and riveting portrait of the man many still blame for the escalation of the war in Vietnam.

His most recent film, Standard Operating Procedure, is ostensibly about the torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. More fundamentally, it is a careful, almost obsessive, examination of the notorious photographs that documented that abuse. “The Abu Ghraib photographs serve as both an exposé and a coverup,” Morris has written on his website. “An exposé, because the photographs offer us a glimpse of the horror of Abu Ghraib; and a coverup because they convinced journalists and readers they had seen everything, that there was no need to look further.”

Errol Morris recently spoke to CALIFORNIA about his films, his writing, and the nature of truth. Toward the end of the interview he mentioned that he had been invited to give the commencement address to the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism this spring. Almost wistfully, he said, “I hope I do a good job.”

PJ: You’ve been blogging at The New York Times website, writing these very long and involved essays. Can you sum up what they’re about?

EM: I would say all the pieces, in one way or another, concern the idea of truth and to what extent can we say that a photograph or a motion picture is true or false. A lot of what I’ve written was motivated, at least in part, by my unending annoyance with claims that if photographs are taken in a certain way or documentary films are made in a certain way, that they become more truthful as a result, as if somehow the style of a film’s presentation guaranteed its truthfulness. And I think it’s a very deep misconception about documentary film and also a very deep misconception about truth. Truth in my view is not subjective or relative.

I’m very fond of asking anyone who says they believe in the subjectivity or relativity of truth—two very different, equally repulsive postmodern claims—how they would feel if they were being strapped into an electric chair for crimes they didn’t commit. And as they’re protesting their innocence someone says to them, “Well, it doesn’t really matter because truth is relative, truth is contextual, truth is subjective. I can think you’re guilty, you can think you’re innocent. We’re all entitled to our opinion.” Well, this is a very, very bad idea.

It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about truth in science or truth in journalism—truth depends on a quest to try to discover what’s really out there, what really happened. And it isn’t given over to you by simply following a set of rules, any more than objectivity is given over to you by simply following the scientific method. It’s an endless quest, an endless gathering of and thinking about evidence, of framing hypotheses…. And most of my films have been an attempt to try to find truth and also an attempt to investigate how people avoid that entire enterprise and are satisfied with things that are patently absurd and false.

A common response to your blog- one you’ve confronted in your own responses- could be summed up as “Who cares?”

Of course they care enough to write down “Who cares?” and ridicule those who do.

And why should we care? Because knowledge is about trying to determine, to the best of our abilities, what is real and what is illusion, what is true and what is false.

So, let me ask you this: What’s the truth of the Gulf of Tonkin?

The truth of the Gulf of Tonkin is that there were two attacks, one of which was real, and one of which was imaginary, but which was assumed to be real. McNamara was very fond of telling people that he had a shell from the first attack, so he knew that the North Vietnamese had attacked this U.S. destroyer.

McNamara and I had this very odd exchange. I said “How come there’s a difference between the hardback version and the paperback version of [his memoir] In Retrospect?” He said, “There is no difference.” I said, “Well, there is the footnote about the incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin.” And he said, “That? Oh, yes, that, that.” Supposedly he made this change because he went to this conference in Hanoi [in 1995] where he and his counterpart in the North Vietnamese (now Vietnamese) government talked about a bunch of things, and the fact that the second attack had never occurred was confirmed by the Vietnamese. And immediately after hearing this he decided to put it into a revised version of In Retrospect. Now, this is my question: Are you really telling me, Mr. McNamara, that in all the intervening years you continued to believe that that second attack had occurred? President Johnson, in phone conversations, indicates that he didn’t believe the second attack had occurred, within days of [the incident].

This is descending into a long discussion of historical evidence, but it’s also a discussion about self-deception and lying. Did McNamara refuse to believe that the second attack had not occurred or was he lying about it? At what point was he lying about it? Had he lied about it so long that he came to believe it?

What difference does it make whether a second attack occurred when we know the first attack happened?

That’s a really good question … although I always have this sense that when people say “that’s a really good question,” they mean to say “fuck you.” But I think it is an important question. I know there’s this belief that the Tonkin incidents were a conspiracy. I don’t think there was a conspiracy, but I do think there was a desire to escalate the war and people were looking for something and were predisposed to believe that that second attack had occurred. And we had done everything in our power to provoke such an attack—on both occasions.

There’s that part in The Fog of War where Johnson is goading McNamara to give him the pretense he needs to escalate the conflict.

I think that those presidential conversations have to be seen in light of the fact that people on the other end of those calls didn’t know they were being recorded. Johnson, on the other hand, did. He was the one doing it. And many of them to me appear as a person trying to manufacture a historical record beneficial to himself.

Well, that leads me into the interviews in Standard Operating Procedure, where many of the people involved in the abuses at Abu Ghraib seem to be doing everything they can to exonerate themselves. For example, I was particularly skeptical of the civilian interrogator, I guess in part because I knew he was a civilian interrogator.

Here’s one odd phenomenon about Abu Ghraib. And that is, the more we really knew about it, the more we really wanted to assign blame. Who was responsible? Of course, the question was: Were these just rogue soldiers? Was it endemic abuse? Was it policy? Or White House policy? Was it the civilian contractors, who simply lost it? My own two cents is that the civilian contractors were no better and no worse than anyone else. It’s a very complex and interesting story. Ultimately I believe it was policy that came all the way from the White House, and we actually know that because of things that were revealed long after the fact and before President Bush left office.

And one of the criticisms with Standard Operating Procedure is that you didn’t go high enough up the chain of command.

Well, to me, that’s like complaining about Lassie because it doesn’t have a hippopatomus in it. A person like myself who is a politically liberal progressive is expected to go after Rumsfeld and Cheney. That’s what you’re supposed to do. That’s what the movie is supposed to be about: the perfidies of Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush. If you ask me, do I think the three of them are bad guys? The answer is, “You betcha.” Do I think that is what my movie is about? No! Nor do I feel that that is what it has to be about. I think there’s a lot of interesting material in that movie that is about the complexity of morality and decision-making.

I have often spoken of Standard Operating Procedure as the flip side of The Fog of War, because instead of a policy-maker—perhaps the most important person in the government save the president himself—here you have grunts, people with little or no power. This is about soldiers. Soldiers follow orders or there would be no military. And what’s interesting is that there are multiple incidents of civil disobedience- or military disobedience- in every one of those stories. What is an example of that disobedience? Photography.

But people can’t even see that movie because it violates what they want to believe. It violates some dark, simplistic view of the world. I think it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever made. I think it’s far more interesting and better than The Fog of War.

I thought Standard Operating Procedure was hard to watch simply because a film about torture is difficult to watch. And I also wanted to hate the people in those photos, smiling over the prisoner’s corpse.

I believe that we don’t have a full understanding of those pictures. We think they represent the evil center of Abu Ghraib and of the Iraq War in general. I don’t think that they do. In a way, we were blessed by those photographs because they gave us a peek inside a world that would have been invisible otherwise. I’m fond of pointing out that Sabrina Harmon, in another set of circumstances, would be given a Pulitzer Prize for her photography rather than a jail sentence.

When Sabrina Harmon took that picture of the corpse in the shower room, she had been lied to by her commanding officers, who described it as a heart attack victim. And it’s interesting when you look at all the photographs and you put them in chronological order, yes perhaps that first photograph was a kind of strange trophy photograph, but … as she began to take more and more photographs—she went back twice—the photographs turn from that very early thumbs-up photograph to forensic photography. And there is no doubt that she is documenting a murder that she had nothing to do with. But we don’t care. We don’t care. The smile somehow stands in for everything that’s wrong with the war.

By the way, none of those commanding officers who participated in a coverup of murder were ever charged with anything. And yet Sabrina Harmon spent a year in prison.

To me, OK we can talk about the big picture of Iraq but there’s something in details—I guess this is another answer to that question, “Who cares?” and “Why bother?” It’s because to me, in details are the answers.

And of course, what you’re saying about all of the people in Standard Operating Procedure, it’s true of all people: All people narrate stories about themselves with themselves as the hero. It’s part of the human condition. But those stories have a lot to tell us, notwithstanding.

California Executive Editor Pat Joseph is himself fast, cheap, and out of control.
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