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What is truth? McNamara in The Fog of War.

Hard Lessons
By Ann Morrow

The Fog of War
Directed by Errol Morris

During Errol Morris’ Academy Award acceptance speech for his documentary The Fog of War, many viewers were surprised to hear the filmmaker add Robert McNamara, secretary of defense during the Vietnam War and the film’s subject, to his list of thanks. Seeing how the name “Robert McNamara” is as reviled as “Westmoreland” and “Agent Orange,” why thank the man just for allowing himself to be interviewed? But after seeing the film, which ranks with Morris’ best work (The Thin Blue Line, A Brief History of Time), the reason is made apparent. McNamara, 85 at the time of filming, is fascinatingly candid and cautionary. Although as wily as ever when sitting in the hot seat, the former power broker learned a few things while serving under two presidents, and has “derived a few conclusions” during the intervening years, which is why The Fog of War is subtitled Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara.

Born during “the war to end all wars,” and a veteran of World War II, McNamara was president of the Ford Motor Company—where he im-proved product safety—at the time he was tapped by John F. Kennedy to become Secretary of Defense. The Harvard grad was the youngest man ever to serve in “the toughest job in Washington,” and as archival footage shows, he was a familiar face on the evening news during his seven-year tenure. But as the former secretary relates, his first learning curve came from the firebombing of Japan during his service as an Army Air Corps analyst. Graphically relating the country’s wholesale destruction even before the A-bombs were dropped, this segment is the film’s most powerful; McNamara is brutally honest on the part he played as an efficiency expert for civilian casualties. The experience also seems to have shaped the his passively anti-nuke stance. “There’s no learning period with nuclear weapons,” he says. “You make one mistake, and you destroy nations.” Not a bad attitude to have had during the Cuban missile crisis, when cooler heads than JFK’s prevailed.

And as some startling exchanges from taped conversations reveal, McNamara advised JFK to withdraw from Vietnam, advice the president was receptive to. After the assassination, the secretary’s tentative recommendations to avoid escalation and to “educate the public” were received with derision by Lyndon Johnson, who eventually fired McNamara despite the secretary’s machinelike compliance with the war effort. But the nuts and bolts of who did what in Vietnam are not as instructive as McNamara’s conclusions. Nearly every sentence he utters resonates powerfully with current U.S. foreign policies, especially regarding the morass in Iraq. When it comes to the use of military might, he says, “Reason has its limits,” a comment substantiated by his insider recollections. At this point, the elegiac score by Philip Glass becomes less obtrusive and more appropriate.

Augmented by symbolically vintage effects, such as dominoes toppling along a map of Asia, the film keeps a tight focus on its talking head. And that’s as it should be. McNamara is a compelling subject: intellectually restless, incisively analytical, and unexpectedly affable. And despite highlighting some key adjectives in the news reports (“brainy” “cold” and “unshakable” later give way to “arrogant dictator” and worse), Morris does capture the secretary’s softer side, including, at the end, a fleeting glimpse of the toll the job took on him. For Lesson 11 alone (You Can’t Change Human Nature), The Fog of War should be required viewing for all presidential candidates and those who work for them. “War is so complex,” says McNamara, in the summary of his enlightening narrative, “that it’s beyond the human mind to grasp all the variables.”

Off the Pace

Hidalgo
Directed by Joe Johnston

With its majestic sweep, incredible photography (by Shelly Johnson) and equine star, Hidalgo, a would-be epic oater by Joe Johnston, strives hard to live up to its spiritual antecedent, The Black Stallion. In that earlier flick, a young boy and the title character rescue each other from a sinking, burning ship, and then go on to share a profound love and respect for each other that traverses desert islands and stateside race tracks. In the new movie, the 50/50 relationship doesn’t come into play until much later, after mustang Hidalgo, with a nuzzle of his flaring nostrils, knocks some sense into drunken cowboy Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen), convincing him that they can and must compete in the $150,000 prize Arabian endurance race, the Ocean of Fire.

Scriptwriter John Fusco tries hard to make us understand Frank’s inner turmoil; in sketchy early scenes, we see that Hopkins is employed by the U.S. Cavalry as a dispatch rider. One day, he delivers orders outlining a massacre of civilian Native Americans at Wounded Knee Creek. Being one-half Indian himself, Frank is devastated when he realizes his part in the atrocity, and goes on a six-month bender before ending up in Buffalo Bill’s sideshow as a rodeo clown. Against all odds, he cleans up his act in order to accept Sheikh Riyadh’s (Omar Sharif) challenge to ride the deadly desert race. Once in Arabia, he encounters prejudice (he is, after all, an infidel), slavery, misogyny (the sultan’s beautiful daughter Jazira is fated to wed a pompous prince), and, above all, danger.

Sounds exciting, with all the ingredients for a Saturday-matinee-type movie along the lines of Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Mummy. Trouble is, Johnston and company have no clue about making such a crowd pleaser, and instead give us a lengthy though beautiful-to-look-at movie that has absolutely no sense of urgency. What race? Even scenes in which the sultan’s encampment is attacked by Bedouin avengers is yawnworthy: Who are these hooded assailants, and why should we care if the sultan’s crew is decimated? After all, the sultan himself was just about to oversee Frank’s castration for supposedly touching Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson). Borrowing heavily from Raiders, right down to a scene involving a hapless maiden hiding in one—but which one?—of many baskets, and The Scorpion King (a sandstorm and a ruler with the ability to see the future, except when it regards the race), Hidalgo is like a runaway, er, horse, desperately in need of some reining in when it comes to writing and editing.

Despite the mess, Mortensen comes off well, his sheer star magnitude and likeability overcoming a rotten script. Nearly all his lines are funny, in that throwaway, oh-so- American way typified by Harrison Ford or, earlier, John Wayne in any John Ford film, but since Hopkins is largely taciturn by nature, these bright spots are few and far between. Robinson is a fetching and feisty princess whose interactions with Hopkins are too limited, and Louise Lombard, as the icy competitor Lady Anne Davenport, leaves one wishing that Fusco had elaborated on her nasty scheme, and perhaps pitted her more against her would-be rival, Jazira. There are some good fight scenes, but again, since we know so little of Hopkins’ nemeses, most of these are fairly gratuitous and fail to rouse the audience to the edge of their seats. With so much going for it going into the gate, Hidalgo should have been a success, but apparent laziness on the part of the filmmakers has robbed audiences of everything save some great scenery and the neatest horse since Seabiscuit.

—Laura Leon

Not That There’s Anything Wrong With It

Starsky & Hutch
Directed by Todd Phillips

Whither the remake?

Starsky & Hutch, the theatrical “repurposing” of the 1970s cop show, brings this timely question into focus with startling clarity. While the film pays tribute to its source material, primarily by employing the iconography of the original series, it also, on a deeper level, raises questions of intention, context and viewership in the meta-sense of all contemporary media “entertainment.”

All right, it actually doesn’t. My bad. You try to come up with something new to say about another old TV show recycled into a movie. This pop-culture regurgitation occurs for no good artistic purpose. It’s just economics, a function of conservative producers who love presold product and have a naked fear of the new, and, of course, lazy filmmakers who want most of their work done for them.

Once one’s expectations are sufficiently lowered by this acceptance of banal reality, however, this can be said about the film in question: Starsky & Hutch is kinda funny.

The two are an unlikely pair. Starsky (Ben Stiller) is an annoying, by-the-book, uncool cop who, inexplicably, has a boss car—the legendary red and white Ford Torino—and a psychological complex related to his dead mother. Hutch (Owen Wilson) is a genially corrupt cop who lives in the ’hood and hangs with pimps and hos. When a dead body washes up on shore in their “Bay City” precinct, Hutch’s first thought is to push it back into the bay so it will float on to another jurisdiction. Starsky won’t allow this, however, plunging them into the pointless plot which will be used to link an otherwise unrelated series of comic sketches.

The director (Todd Phillips of Old School) alternates between new comic bits and deadly accurate parodies of the TV show. Stiller gets points for playing a variant of the original character created by Paul Michael Glaser; Glaser’s in-character cameo, however, proves (unfortunately for Stiller) that he is the funnier Starsky. Owen Wilson is Owen Wilson. He has a fully formed comic persona—part con man, part innocent—and he just plugs it into the role. Wilson is consistently hilarious, especially when singing David Soul’s hit “Don’t Give Up on Us.”

The rest of the cast ranges from smart (Fred “the Hammer” Williamson as a police captain) to inspired (Vince Vaughn as a crime lord). There are nice cameos by Chris Penn, Amy Smart and Will Ferrell, too. As an evening’s entertainment, you could do a lot worse than Starsky & Hutch.

Whither the remake? It will endure. (Sigh.)

—Shawn Stone


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