Mark Kermode - Past crimes

Film - True stories of a female serial killer and a US war leader told with empathy. <strong>By Mark

Two real-life killers take the witness stand this week: a law-abiding warrior who helped wipe out thousands in the name of democracy; and an outlaw hooker who became America's premier female serial killer. Both claimed they acted in self-defence, the former in conflicts against those who threatened America, the latter in horribly intimate grapples with that same country's menfolk. Both are treated with even-handed empathy by their respective directors - the renowned documentarian Errol Morris and feature first-timer Patty Jenkins. Yet while the former US defence secretary Robert S McNamara speaks eloquently for himself in The Fog of War, it's left to an actress to do the talking in Monster, as Aileen Wuornos recently suffered the death penalty.

In dramatising Wuornos's alarming life story, writer/ director Jenkins intelligently blends sympathy for an abused woman, who became a feminist icon for cutting up men, with a clear-eyed awareness of the realities of murder. Whether or not Wuornos began her deadly spree as a victim of circumstance (as she initially claimed), Jenkins is clear that she slipped into a moral vacuum in which killing became simply convenient. Thus Aileen's victims in Monster range from a psychopath who beats and violates her shackled body to a good Samaritan slain while innocently aiding a woman in distress. The latter is beautifully portrayed by the ever-tremulous Scott Wilson - just one of a fine brace of male counter-culture cameos, including Pruitt Taylor Vince as an enfeebled first-time client and the majestic Bruce Dern as Aileen's avuncular confidante. Christina Ricci plays the under-drawn supporting role of Aileen's lover, but these acute sketches of men undercut any simplification of the story's complex sexual politics.

Carrying the weight of the movie is the formerly fragile Charlize Theron, whose Oscar-winning feat of self-transformation (from false teeth to self-taxidermy) provides an uncanny imitation of Wuornos's physical and verbal mannerisms - a wide-eyed, flat-browed portrait of a woman in a state of perpetual agitation: physically fidgety; mentally rattled; always on the brink of violent self-destruction. What Wuornos herself would have made of Monster is anyone's guess. When the psychotic Henry Lee Lucas denounced John McNaughton's fictitious Henry: portrait of a serial killer as "sick", he paid it the highest complement - who would want the endorsement of a lying, manipulative thug?

Yet Wuornos achieved both celebrity and public sympathy, thanks in part to two documentaries by Nick Broomfield, both of which have been re-marketed on the back of Monster's success. In these uneven but informative documentaries, we see the undeniably charismatic Wuor-nos wrestling with her own changing testimony (she recanted her self-defence claims, apparently in preparation for death) while those around her rush to make money from her fame. Considering how exploitative any movie of her life could be (the director was originally encouraged to do a straight-to-video slasher), it is a credit to Jenkins and Theron that Monster, for all its flaws, keeps such a clear dramatic head while plumbing the depths of Wuornos's disastrous existence.

In stark contrast, Errol Morris's documentary The Fog of War offers an engagingly upbeat portrait of Robert McNamara, the man who helped oversee the firebombing of Japanese cities in the Second World War before orchestrating America's catastrophic war in Vietnam. Speaking straight to camera, with occasional off-screen interjections from Morris, McNamara is captured at a unique time in his life - his mind sharp enough to remember everything he has done over the past 80-odd years, but soft enough to question whether any of it was right. "How much evil must we do," he asks, "in order to do good?" Thus the man once characterised as an un- questioning know-it-all is seen, over the course of 11 "lessons", to admit that conflicts were escalated on the basis of false intelligence, and that he could have been declared a war criminal had his side not won. The relevance of such frankness today is lost neither on Morris - who made a bumbling anti-war speech at the Oscars - nor on McNamara, who seems alarmed by man's new-found ability to destroy entire nations by mistake. "We came this close . . . " says the man who kept a straight face throughout the Cuban missile crisis, and who is revealed through archive tapes to have advised JFK to get out of Vietnam long before LBJ turned it into a grudge match.

By the end of Morris's wonderfully open-minded and insightful film, it's possible (astonishingly) to believe that Mc-Namara was acting with the "best intentions" even as he marched into the abyss. Whether any of Tony Blair's cohorts could ever be as frank about the misjudgements of the Iraq war remains to be seen.