Watching a film through the eyes of a chimp... sorta

by phil on Sunday Feb 22, 2004 5:12 PM

I'm an atheist but I went to church today... the church of art-house movie theaters.

I went after lunch, after chowning a lumberous Baja Buritto, deciding that I couldn't do my math homework with a buritto-siesta lodged into my skull. So I took down a 2pm-4pm block this Sunday afternoon to catch a matinee showing of The Fog of War. This film is about moral consequence. It's a documentary history-sketch of modern American wartime slaughter. It's a story told through the eyes, mouth, and wrinkled face of one of the threads running through the fabric of World War II to Vietnam: Robert S. McNamara (pronounced "MAC-nuh-mar-ah"). Bob served as the Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, providing critical analytical roles for Kennedy and LBJ.

Read Fred Kaplan's review of The Fog of War for more about the film.

But back to my pseudo-siesta.

So I entered the theatre, surprised to see the seats moderately filled. I had arrived twelve minutes late, so the lights were dim, and I fumbled around looking for an available seat. Despite the darkness, though, I could see the shine of screen-light reflecting off the white hairs of those in the audience. This is when I realized I was at church.

Me and the fellow chimps in the cathedral gazed intently as the wizened-alpha-chimp-of-honor McNamara teleported in front of us. He explained how in the days of lore, he worked in the Statistics department of the US Air Force. He told how he used his brain to figure out the most efficient ways to weaken the Yellow Chimps across the pond of the Pacific Ocean. We learned the nuances of the equivalent of fighting with broken branches in the jungle: the strategic use of bombing. These nuances, though, clashed with painful scenes of firestorm and terror. But we took solace in McNamara's honesty as he lamented an important point: "what he did was only moral because the White Chimps won."

The sermon moved the audience, and we respected this alpha-chimp who helped save the White Chimps from the evil of the Yellows.

But then the story turns sour, and our tribe is on the losing side. This is when the sermon transitions into a plea for forgiveness. McNamara explains the faults of US calculations in Vietnam by dishing blame on his superiors. This was looked down upon.

In the end of it, though, the elder chimps in the audience seemed to nod with approval at a man they felt indebted to for keeping our tribe safe for thirty some odd years.

This gratefulness is due to a point stressed early in the film. To make this point, McNamara would lunge forward to the camera and pinch his thumb and pointing finger together, pleading, "we came THIS close to nuclear war." We are still THIS close, he reiterates, as there are currently 2,600 nuclear warheads that are fifteen-minutes and one human being away from launch.

And this is why I used the chimp metaphor. Because in our ancestral chimp tribes, we lived in the fog of the jungle. We were small packs, and we were barely able to see past the thicket of our own ignorance. Hence, our safety depended on the wit and whim of a few alpha-chimps, huddled near the canopy of the trees, looking out at the desert, imagining threats, and risking our lives to protect us.

While we could playfully gossip while grooming each other, the chief chimps in the background were making heavy decisions that affected whether we would see our brothers and sisters again. Nowadays the stakes are even higher, as they are deciding whether our tribe, and all other tribes, will continue to exist.

And as a result, after watching this film, I am thankful that I am here.

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