CANNES, FRANCE — If Errol Morris wins Best Documentary at the Oscars this month for "The Fog of War," be sure to check his shoes.
At the movie's world première at the Cannes film festival last spring, he bounded onto the stage decked out in the requisite tuxedo, but on his feet was a pair of scruffy, old exercise shoes.
It was a perfect metaphor for Mr. Morris's career. He's navigated through the movie world with skill and success - while remaining his own distinctive self at the bottom of it all.
"The Fog of War" resembles other Morris documentaries in its style, combining long interview sequences with other filmed material. Morris loves to listen, and all his movies are dominated by the ruminations of the people he interviews.
What's different about the new picture is its subject. Unlike such Morris classics as "Gates of Heaven," about a pet cemetery, and "The Thin Blue Line," which helped get a wrongly convicted man off death row, "The Fog of War" focuses on a famous figure: Robert S. McNamara, who ran Ford Motors, led a death-drenched raid on Tokyo in World War II, and helped to orchestrate the Vietnam War as the secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
Later, he headed the World Bank and wrote books about his controversial career. "The Fog of War" had a long gestation period, Morris explained over lunch at the Cannes film festival last year.
"It may have started when I was demonstrating against the Vietnam war 40 years ago," he said. "But it really began when I read 'In Retrospect,' one of [McNamara's] books. I found it to be very different from what I'd read about it in the news.... It's not a mea culpa, and in many ways it's a crazy, tortured, haunted book. From that point on, I wanted to do something with him. I approached him ... and much to my surprise, he said 'yes' right away."
Was he familiar with Morris's previous films? "I'm not sure he's gone to more than three or four movies in his entire life," the director says. "I don't think that's part of his geography."
Nor did McNamara have any particular assurance that Morris would paint a fair-minded portrait.
"Two days before he was supposed to come," Morris recalls, "he phoned and said he shouldn't be doing this - it made no sense to expose himself like this!"
McNamara kept his word, though. "He finally said he'd do it because he'd agreed to do it," Morris reports. "That's what he told me after a long litany of reasons why he shouldn't do it!"
In fact, Morris wanted neither to debunk nor to whitewash McNamara, but to show him and his era in a fresh light.
"There's a received view of McNamara," says Morris, "a King James version of him: the number cruncher, the statistician, the logic guy devoid of ethical and moral sensibility - who then belatedly came to thinking that war was wrong and cried, 'Boo-hoo, I see the error of my ways, I'm terribly sorry.' The problem with this view is that it's wrong.
Morris observes that it's highly unusual for a major American political figure of that time to be willing to come forward and delve into what he did and then explain what it means and why he did it. "He's always had a compulsive need to understand things he has done, things he's been part of," the filmmaker explains.
Taking a larger view, Morris feels his movie deals with questions transcending McNamara's individual life and work.
"We all want to see things in black and white," the filmmaker says, "as if moral choice is always so obvious. The devil is on one shoulder, the angel is on the other, and you make a simple decision - oh, I guess I'll pick good rather than evil today, or vice versa. But the world isn't like that.
The documentarian says that there's an important context to McNamara's revelations. The former secretary of Defense's generation grew up before World War II, went through that war, and then experienced the cold war in ways those born later cannot completely understand.
Such unassuming honesty runs through all of Morris's work, and he could be speaking of almost any film he's made when he says he wanted to "capture the complexity of the man, which ... involved contradictory elements. That's part of the job. And to the extent that I understand everything in a movie like this, I feel I've done a bad job."