John Frankenheimer’s latest (TV) film, ON THE WAY OF THE WAR stands out as a masterful work, much less minor than it appears in the filmography of the filmmaker. And for good reason, it is a brilliant portrait of the underside of Lyndon B. Johnson’s second term; the x-ray of a presidency marked by disillusion, that of ideals shattered in contact with an unwanted war. Brilliant in its didacticism, exciting in its deconstruction of power.
More words always words, the same words. It is the same mechanism that repeats and repeats itself over and over again. A diplomatic mechanism where each decision is based less on a conviction than on a convincing word. Faced with this mill of the verb that we turn ad nauseam, ON THE WAY OF WAR deconstructs its logic in a small theater of (in) human relationships where “advice” generates ideas, feelings and actions. Focusing on the underside of the Johnson presidency, John frankenheimer seeks to highlight a president’s gradual slide into a war that will take him away from his priorities and political convictions. This slip is a real drama shakespearean, an inevitable fall, a tragedy in the privacy of political power.
Interesting complement to the essential Vietnam of Ken burns, ON THE WAY OF WAR is a continuation of the approach already undertaken by HBO on The West Wing a.k.a To the White House ; namely large-scale, detailed, precise and intelligent projects on the mysteries of power, on political representations, on democracy and on the influence games that can be exercised in a presidential campaign and a mandate. But it is also and above all a film on speech, on the choice of ailments and the weight of words. The debates of opinions fuse and Johnson, at the center of the chessboard, must decide, always, in favor of the most convincing. In ON THE WAY OF WAR, it is the word that must be respected.
And if politics first inspires rhetoric, it also leads to a dynamic of language. In PATH TO WAR, words are notes on a score; this scenario brilliantly composed by Daniel Giat, as sharp as it turns out to be remarkably correct. A decade of research, interviews, consultations with historians and former members of the Johnson administration, and voila, Giat gives birth to a scenario-dossier, relentless, ruthless, factual and extremely rigorous. So much so that one could believe in the documentary authenticity of all these heated discussions and deliberations. Everything is politics and chatter heavy with consequences in this maze of offices, decisions, paperwork, signatures, memos and briefings. And as intelligent as it is, the screenplay does not forget this part of humanity, fragility and nuance when it comes to portraying these puppeteers of power.
Giat chooses linearity, chronology, without getting lost in a complex structure, flashbacks and time jumps as could be done Oliver stone with Nixon. Here, it is the chronological facts which multiply tenfold the cold power of the work; and it is the bias of a fall, of an announced decline, of a rise-and-fall, which is at the heart of the storytelling. We dig directly into the heart of the matter, without fat or added material. Frankenheimer less often gives in to emphatic style effects than Stone ; and its staging is thus revealed to be more precise, more clinical, more apt to bring out emotion at the bend of a well-composed frame. But it is with the same strike force, the same weight of words and speeches, that Frankenheimer leads us into his white hut full of suits, ties and pins ” stars and stripes “. And where ON THE WAY OF WAR passionate, it is well in the nuanced portrait of these “men of the president”.
Everything is politics and chatter heavy with consequences in this maze of offices, decisions, paperwork, signatures, memos and briefings.
Each character benefits from a sufficiently rich and complex characterization to be confronted with his contradictions, his doubts, his errors or his humanity. And we can count on this cast – imperial – to give masterly body and life to these costumes and uniforms. Michael gambon Thus imposes his stature on LBJ and is particularly brilliant when it comes to portraying a dual personality, between loneliness of power, loss of landmarks and speech without language. It is the powerlessness, fundamentally very human, of the interiority of a man in power (and this complex emotional journey) that is transmitted to us Gambon in its interpretation. And at his side, we can also count on a formidable Alec baldwin in Robert McNamara, on the equally incredible Donald Sutherland in Clark Clifford and on the no less exceptional Bruce mcgill in George Ball, the only adviser who fiercely opposes engagement in the Vietnamese conflict.
Frankenheimer As for him, he concentrates all his staging around a dynamic, that of the camera facing the permanent circulation of speech. This word which circulates is also an active word, a word which has repercussions, which leads to concrete action: one word, and bombs are dropped on villages on the other side of the world; one sentence and it is a war which is declared on a foreign people. The raw and precise staging of Frankenheimer brilliantly highlights this decision-making process where what comes out of the mouths of some influences the ideas of others. In this logic, he makes perfect use of depth of field, vanishing lines and the positioning of bodies in the space of the frame itself; always in a hierarchical functioning, balance of power, “dominoes” and decision-making chains. Here again we can recognize the formal motifs dear to Frankenheimer such as the sometimes extreme use of the short focal length, of the low angle view or even of the half-windshield; finely composed shots which always come to insist on these looks, on these influence games, on this information which contaminates the backgrounds, on this word which circulates, on those who write it and on those who say it.
Frankenheimer thus seeks to show how the word or the glance acts on the individual in these tensions between several individualities, in opposition, in adequacy, in confrontation or in meeting. And there is a certain pleasure in seeing the film never turn away from the halls of power; as if the outside world and the distant war were just words on official paper or on the map of part of Risk. Strategy, logistics, statistics; all that is going on in this chain of meetings is a disconnection with reality: if the obsession for anticommunism leads generals to heights of absurdity (formidable Tom skerritt in general Westmoreland, convinced of being able to win the war even when every action announces a defeat), it is also a certain ignorance of the subject which leads to costly decision-making in lives. We recognize there the biting irony of this dear Frankenheimer. In this latest television work, the filmmaker returns to his first emotions, his famous political thrillers, between plots and paranoia, between coldness and precision mechanics.
The fields, the counter-fields, the convinced faces, the convincing looks: the whole staging seems to want to isolate individualities in a collective process, personal consciousnesses in a game that goes beyond them, that of governance. You have to see those faces that suffer without being able to express it, this McNamara aware that the war he helped to start will only end in defeat and this Johnson desperate to see that his beautiful ideals of a ” Great Society (Fight against poverty, against racial injustices, for civil rights, for education, etc.) disappeared in a war in which he never believed. Johnson sinks, consumes himself and watches, isolated from the outside, the protests mounted against him: the television news does not protect him, quite the contrary; they underline his fall, accompany his regrets and eviscerate him when some slogans directly revile him (” Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today? “).
And faced with such a responsibility, Johnson is satisfied to make the decisions and to sign, in the chain, these letters of condolence to the families of the soldiers who died “for their homeland”. And sometimes he appeals to Kennedy’s ghost, blames him, glorifies him, questions what he could have done in such a presidential position; and if in the end his actions would not also have led to this Vietnamese quagmire: same advisers, same influence, same impatience to end it, same need to maintain this famous American “prestige”, same actions which are repeated over and over again. history (and yes, we also think of Bush and his quagmire in Iraq). Frankenheimer never gives in to ease in this complex portrait. ON THE WAY OF WAR is a work on the disillusion that accompanies any presidency, on these undesirable situations which are imposed on any head of state. But it is also and above all a work that deconstructs decision-making mechanics by showing that ideals always end up getting lost in concessions and that a decision can sometimes plunge a government into an irreversible cycle.
Heavy footsteps then echo in the corridors from one wing to the other, from an official office to a bedroom where you never find sleep. It’s easy to start a war but it’s hell to get out of it; ON THE WAY OF WAR Breaks down the movement with a lot of lucidity but also a foolproof mastery. In a war there are no victors, there are only ruins. Johnson himself turns into ruin as his decision-making pushes him towards an inevitable outcome: lost at the helm of his own country, he tries to clear himself, unable to justify his decisions and his choices of governance. And even if he was advised – not to say (dis) oriented – it was indeed to him that the decision-making power rested. Faced with this political perdition, the tragedy is fully embodied in a renunciation, in the eyes of this self-disappointed president, on the verge of tears after a last speech. Listening ears and convincing mouths, that’s about all that is at the heart of ON THE WAY OF WAR. And it is still words that we sow in the wind; and decisions that unleash storms.
• Original title : Path to War
• Production : John frankenheimer
• Scenario: Daniel Giat
• Main actors : Michael Gambon, Donald Sutherland, Alec Baldwin, Bruce McGill, James Frain, Felicity Huffman, Frederic Forrest, John Aylward, Philip Baker Hall, Gary Sinise, Tom Skerritt, Cliff De Young, Chris Eigeman, Sarah Paulson
• Release date : May 18, 2002
• Duration: 2h45