September 2004 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Gary S. Dalkin
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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The Fog of War:  11 Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara
Music composed by Philip Glass
  Conducted by Michael Riesman
  Available on Orange Mountain Music, Inc. OMM0010
Running time: 73:08
Crotchet   Amazon UK   Amazon US

fog of war

See also:
The Hours – piano version, reviewed this month on FMOTW

Following subjects such as Death Row, mole rats, Stephen Hawkings, pet cemeteries, an electric chair designer, frauds, and a lion tamer, director Errol Morris switched gears when he tried to peg down reviled '60s mastermind Robert S. McNamara. Who could possibly score such an uncharacteristic project?

There was a generation of hatred for the former president of General Motors, Secretary of Defense for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and president of the World Bank; McNamara was once deemed a soulless "IBM machine with legs" for being the alleged instigator of the Vietnam War. Why he consented to being interviewed by an unconventional documentarian was odd in itself... but what began as an hour interview turned into twenty more, with riveting results. The wisdom of a onetime powerhouse - but now reclusive octogenarian - is presented in Morris's near masterpiece, The Fog of War, subtitled 11 Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara.

When watching an Errol Morris documentary, one cannot help but realize that the manipulation of imagery and subjects is his strength as a filmmaker; while the cuts and images are powerful, they could be even more so with the addition of equally potent music. The Fog of War reunites Morris with composer, Philip Glass, after previous collaborations on The Thin Blue Line and A Brief History of Time. In the liner notes, the director openly confesses, "I cannot think of who else could have written the music. ...he (Glass) creates a feeling of existential dread better than anyone else I know of. And this is a movie filled with existential dread." The album—from Glass's own record company, Orange Mountain Music—has a sum of thirty-four tracks and provides listeners with approximately seventy-three minutes of music.

Unlike his other film scores i.e. The Thin Blue Line, The Truman Show, or the impressionistic Qatsi trilogy, Glass's cues for The Fog of War are atypically truncated (each track being approximately two minutes in length). Much time is needed to absorb the music of Philip Glass because of its cyclical and repetitious nature, but there is little time in the documentary to utilize such protracted pieces since a wide array of topics are covered from start to finish. Consequently, the score becomes somewhat more focused than normal, since the pieces are forced to develop early on or not at all.

The Academy Award-winning film plays as an interpretive amalgamation of archival/historical footage, graphical montages, tape recordings of Oval Office discussions, and intense segments of an astute intellectual waxing introspectively in front of the InterrotronTM (video technology used in a novel way so that Morris and his subject can see eye to eye while looking into the camera lens). With so much fodder available, one would expect the composer to take the opportunity to fashion a number of exciting cues. Anyone familiar with Glass would probably expect to hear something dynamic and emotive, but the majority of the tracks are unusually subdued. Morris's notion of "existential dread" has a palpable impact on the overall style of Glass's compositions given that the music never overshadows the drama unfolding onscreen.

Instead of scoring for scenes, Glass scores for the entire film, but refrains from shaping events with subtle aural nuances; he forces on viewers a nebulously consistent (explanation anon) aural backdrop that acts as the stage on which subject and vintage/counterpoint montages perform. Aside from the ominous theme used in the first track, the eponymous end cue, and 'Damned if I Don't', very few motifs are available to encapsulate any given situation. A preponderance of cues consist of variations and mélanges of moods that seem to fall into four categories: melancholic, anxious, solemn, and driven. The film is essentially a piece about hindsight, the ambiguities of global conflict, and what happens when rational men vie for order in a chaotic world. And instead of depicting obvious emotional themes, Glass's aqueous compositions eschew sentimentality or patriotism in favor of murky, meditative ruminations. By focusing on a handful of moods layered atop one another, the music often characterizes the tenuous relations of politics, the uncertainty of negotiations, and the tragedy of failed diplomacy.

In this album, Glass uses a combination of synthesizers and orchestra (comprised of a minimum of brass, the basic woodwinds, a small amount of percussion, and strings). If there is a modicum of hope in the spiraling passages, it is oftentimes accompanied by underlying sorrow or anxiety. Tracks entitled 'Invitation', 'No Second Chance', 'Success', and 'Snowing' are variations on a melancholic theme; the melodies are deceptively optimistic, but accentuate the innate hesitancy involved in undertaking foreign policies or entering new territory. The reoccurring, sometimes solo, flute emphasizes the vulnerability of human nature or McNamara's position in the face of great adversity.

The ubiquitous strings are used mostly to maintain a semi-constant semblance of tension throughout the pieces (and documentary), but occasionally highlight the slow, but inevitable advance of unwanted struggles. The track entitled '67 Cities' complements the scene in which McNamara describes the aerial firebombing of Japanese cities - complete with population statistics and their approximate US counterparts. Only the strings perform this swelling, heavily bittersweet cue as it captures the success of the US attacks and the inevitable annihilation of so many lives. In most tracks, the military is ever-present by means of brass instrumentation; there is many a pulsating motif that buffers solemn ambiances or contributes to additional levels of anxiety.

Throughout The Fog of War, the viewer is inculcated by frame after frame of war, falling bombs, and landscapes; Glass's score is ultimately effective when coupled with such powerful imagery since it carries the weight of the issues and heavier themes. As a standalone album, The Fog of War is unlike any other of his works in that the tracks are considerably shortened and lack the overall flowing narrative that is characteristic of his style; in the Qatsi trilogy, he was able to communicate an entire story without interruption, but the power of his score for The Fog of War score originates from the placements of cues in the documentary. Without the film, it is almost like going through an uneven transition of moods.

Whether or not listeners take to this album, one should consider the seriousness and high relevance of the subject matter. Robert S. McNamara and director Errol Morris provide audience members with an incredibly didactic and insightful look at foreign policy, modern warfare, and the fickle state of human nature. Since the film is replete with thought-provoking morsels, the score by Philip Glass can only balance the brooding milieu of a crucial, landmark documentary.

Tina Huang

Film Score: **** 4
Album: ***"" 3

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