December 19, 2003

Documentary Department Samantha Power is

Documentary Department

Samantha Power is donning her film critic hat. Needless to say, her NYT piece on documentary maker Errol Morris' "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara" is hugely more interesting than your typical movie review (though, unfortunately, Power engages in too much Iraq as Vietnam analogizing).

A snippet:

"By now, Mr. McNamara has learned how to speak about the trauma in his past in much the same way one learns to speak of the death of a loved one: by rote. In our conversation, he often repeated verbatim what he had said on camera. If a question probed tender territory, he pivoted, transitioning skillfully to one of his policy causes, like nuclear nonproliferation or the International Criminal Court. But despite all his best efforts, Mr. McNamara still broke down several times during the filming of "The Fog of War" "a sign of weakness," he told me, embarrassed. On camera, he remains stoic as he says that his wife and son got ulcers when he was secretary of defense, and that his wife, who died in 1981, "may even ultimately have died from the stress." Mr. McNamara's emotions get the better of him when he goes on to say something he must know to be untrue. "But," he insists, waving his pen for emphasis, "they were some of the best years of our lives and" here the tears start "all members of my family benefited from it." He quickly masters the lump in his throat, and proclaims, unconvincingly: "It was terrific." In our interview, Mr. McNamara's eyes filled with tears at precisely the same moment. Though some politicians are known to muster tears as a ploy for sympathy, in the case of Mr. McNamara, who is famously controlling, they seemed anything but calculated; rather, they offered evidence that his public poise is outmatched by his personal demons."

You know, its become something of an American pastime to beat up government officials for sport. Passages like this remind us that, even for a character reviled by so many, high government office can cause intense sorrow and deal real emotive blows still many years later. And at least McNamara is willing to frankly confront the past.

In another interesting passage, Power writes:

"In the absence of full-fledged Congressional investigations, American policymakers rarely look back. They are bound by continuity and fealty across administrations and generations. With the proliferation of class-action suits and the advent of global courtrooms, American officials are now explicitly counseled to avoid public reckoning, for fear of creating legal liability (or constraining their ability to do it all over again, when it suits them). Whether regarding the Vietnam War, America's cold war assassinations or our misguided former alliance with Saddam Hussein, American officials keep their eyes fixed on the future. They rarely admit responsibility for failure, for costly meddling or for large-scale human suffering. They resist debate internally or publicly on how good intentions went astray. And they most certainly don't apologize to those harmed."


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