Searching for the Truth, Now and Then

Is there a right way to find a credible historical source?

Let’s say you wanted to learn about the Vietnam War, and you had only 2 sources of information: a documentary film and a Hollywood studio movie. Which source material might give you a better sense of the Vietnam experience?

This is a brief, vaguely enlightening look at two movies that address the Vietnam War. The documentary is The Fog of War, and Apocalypse Now is the fictional Hollywood production.

Apocalypse Now, released in 1979, was produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola as a way, according to him, to prove to his critics that he could make a film with a truly serious theme. Apocalypse Now was originally devised as a look at the United States military involvement in Vietnam through the lens of Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness. That framework still remains apparent in the film, but liberties were taken along the way with the story and script by Coppola and his cast and crew during the lengthy, problem-plagued, over-budget shoot in the Philippines.

The Fog of War is a documentary by director Errol Morris, released in 2003. It focuses on Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies. It was during that time that the U.S. became increasingly and willingly entangled in the war in Vietnam.

The Fog of War is presented as a series of interviews with McNamara, inter-cut with stock footage of periods from his life, from his earliest memory at the end of World War 1 to his thoughts on decisions he made during the Vietnam War. The director approached the project as a way of getting to some sort of truth concerning the controversial conflict. The questions Morris asked McNamara attempt to elicit meaning from the lessons McNamara took from his influence on the course of the war.

McNamara insightfully examines his and his colleagues’ roles in the trajectory of the Vietnam War, but refuses to assign blame or to second guess decisions that were made. The Fog of War is a useful look at one man’s efforts to understand a period of time in this country’s recent past that has refused to be easily categorized or rationalized. That “one man” is not necessarily Robert McNamara, though, but rather director Errol Morris, who has made a career out of asking questions and searching for answers about often misunderstood topics and themes.

Which brings me back to Francis Ford Coppola, who spent months in the monsoon-drenched jungles of the Philippines desperately searching for the means to capture a fleeting, yet powerful, sense of the Vietnam War as a hell on earth. Unlike every Hollywood studio production he’d been associated with before, Apocalypse Now, which began with a script, gradually resorted to improvisation by the actors, searching, like the director, for a feeling of authenticity that couldn’t be found in the prepared script.

The finished product that is Apocalypse Now contains as much, if not more, of that authenticity, through its evocative, surreal mood and bewildering sense of the “fog of war” than its more measured and cerebral counterpart, The Fog of War.