Over the phone, late in the afternoon, I ask an exhausted Errol Morris if he takes a dim view of humanity. He’s been stumping endlessly to promote his new documentary, The Fog of War, occasionally even touring with the subject of the film himself, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and I am his last interview of the day.

In spite of having spent the entire day talking to journalists, Morris doesn’t coast through the interview, offering up canned responses to questions he’s probably answered dozens of times since his film’s debut at Cannes last May. Instead he speaks slowly, deliberately, with even a hint of anguish, and pauses just long enough between thoughts to be a totally unsettling interview. He’ll find his rhythm later, but for now, there’s absolutely no way of telling whether he’s thinking or whether he’s done.

I put the question to him, and all I hear is breathing on the other end.

Misanthropy is a charge routinely leveled at Morris, but it is a dubious one. To hate something is to dismiss it out of hand. Morris obsesses over humanity. He obsesses over what people do and how they later struggle to explain themselves, how things come to happen: the animating forces of human behavior.

In his first film, 1978’s Gates of Heaven, which a young Morris made as part of a bet with German director Werner Herzog (the latter lost and ate his shoe in front of a packed theatre when GoH debuted), Morris trained his eye on two competing pet cemeteries. The first, a struggling family firm, offered personal attention, respect and sympathy for the bereaved. The other was an abattoir: a relentlessly efficient mechanized garbage-collecting agency that retrieved and rendered deceased animals by the ton.

But as Roger Ebert, who to this day lists the film in his all-time Top 10, wrote, “I have seen this film perhaps 30 times and am still not anywhere near the bottom of it: All I know is, it’s about a lot more than pet cemeteries.” Take one scene in which a woman sits clutching a framed photo of her late dog, looks a little dazedly, a little tearfully, into the camera and asks, “There’s your dog; your dog’s dead. But where’s the thing that made it move? It had to be something, didn’t it?”

It’s the central mystery of life and the central focus of Morris’ films. His later works – documentaries, save for the poorly received The Dark Wind – all chase that same inscrutable force: “The thing that made it move.”

1988’s Thin Blue Line took a gross miscarriage of justice in a Texas murder case and actually solved the mystery. In 1991 he tackled a bigger mystery, releasing a stylized adaptation of Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time, in which the wheelchair-bound cosmologist expresses a desire to know “the mind of God.

1997’s Fast, Cheap and Out of Control told the story of four obsessives intent on bringing just one small piece of the world under their control. There is a lion tamer, a robot designer, a topiary artist and an expert on the social habits of the naked mole rat. Each man bumps up against that same central mystery, though they offer a variation: How can become the thing that makes it move?

Before The Fog of War there was 1999’s Mr. Death. It told the story of one Fred A. Leuchter Jr., an engineer of more humane instruments of execution. Leuchter is a little dim, a little weird, more than a little lonely, and he winds up a pawn of Nazi apologists. He travels to Auschwitz with his dubious hangman’s expertise to expose the Holocaust as a fraud and is bitterly attacked.

Now there is The Fog of War, Morris’s filmic retracing of the Vietnam War through the eyes of one of its principle movers, Robert McNamara, former secretary of defense under Kennedy and Johnson. Presented as a series of lessons attributed, rather spuriously it turns out, to McNamara (McNamara quipped to the Globe last week, “Those are not my lessons … They’re Errol’s”), Fog of War uses Vietnam as a springboard to larger, more difficult questions on the nature of war, with McNamara tossing off gems like, “How much evil must we do in order to do good? We have certain ideals, certain responsibilities. Recognize that at times you will have to engage in evil, but minimize it,” and, “The major lesson of the Cuban missile crisis is this: The indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations.”

There is nothing callous in his pronouncements; they come from a man who has long meditated over what he has done. At a recent benefit for the Harvard Film Archive, an attendee raised the point that in spite of his willingness to visit and revisit the events of his past, McNamara has never apologized, even though today he realizes the war was a terrible thing, that the domino theory didn’t really hold water.

“I’ve heard many people say they want him to apologize for the war,” Morris told me. “I’m not one of them … I’m not sure there is any meaningful apology. I’m not even sure of what an apology could mean for 58,000 Americans dead and millions of Vietnamese dead … I suppose that if you’re cynically inclined, you could simply say this is his attempt to whitewash his past. He has been involved in an attempt to try to understand what he did and why he did it.”

It is the confusion, the variables surrounding the war, the fog, that draws Morris in. Most agree today that the war was an appalling mistake, then as now, but casting right and wrong in such simple absolute terms is not the answer – even in the case of Vietnam. “The only thing [McNamara] tells you quite clearly is that the history he has experienced has been rife with confusion, error, false ideology, wishful thinking and self deception. It’s quite a laundry list.”

Confusion, error, false ideology, wishful thinking and self-deception: Sound familiar? Morris started filming well before the events of 9/11 forcibly realigned the priorities of the country and sent the film down a path many were, to say the least, uneasy with. As filming progressed and The Fog of War came together, it began to take on an unsettling likeness to the ramp-up to war in Iraq. High-ranking defense bureaucrats were employing the same buzzwords to sell a faraway war to an unsettled citizenry; there was talk of defending freedom, of stemming the malign fog drifting from Russia, of realigning the region to keep it from becoming a hotbed of international communism and of freeing the tormented South Vietnamese from the bonds of tyranny.

As the past and the present drew closer before his eyes, Morris recalls, “It felt strange, because the fact that so many of these lessons have become so relevant is kind of a disaster … I wrote an editorial for the LA Times on the movie and preventive war: the notion that we’ll fight a war to prevent other wars – Wilson’s preventive war, World War I, ‘The War to End All Wars.’ And what could be more preventive than that? And how wrong Wilson was. World War I didn’t end war; it just inaugurated a century of carnage.”

So was George Santayana right when he wrote, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”?

Not really, remarked Morris at the HFI benefit. “More like, ‘Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it without a sense of ironic futility.'” Asked then for his assessment of humanity, he said flatly, “We’re fucked.” Like McNamara and his observation about the Cuban missile crisis, for Morris the combination of human folly and weapons of mass destruction do not augur well for the home team. Our DNA hasn’t changed much in 1000 years, and our capacity to wreak havoc has doubled and redoubled in 50: “You tell me what that means,” he said to a slightly stunned crowd.

With lines like these, it’s hard not to brand the man a misanthrope. But it’s still inaccurate, for in spite of this apparent fatalism, he remains a staunch supporter of the UN, of the International Criminal Court, of diplomacy. Sounding an idealistic note, he tells me: “Perhaps as we come to be aware of our own behavior, we can become more aware of ways of preventing that behavior from repeating itself endlessly.”

Could this film be the thing to bring about that kind of cleansing self-awareness?

“People ask me if I would like this to be shown to the current administration. You betcha. Let’s strap them down in seats and force them all to watch The Fog of War.”

It becomes quickly evident that with Morris, any definitive statement comes with an asterisk. We’re fucked, absolutely. Things have gone too far. But maybe not. Maybe global war is preventable. Maybe it isn’t, as McNamara maintains, an inevitability. But then again, Morris says, “You wonder whether we always need enemies – that somehow part of the human psyche is to create situations of good and evil … and this whole emphasis on good and evil, the rejection of shades of gray, of subtlety, of complexity, strike me as truly frightening … I was on a show, NPR, and I followed [former Pentagon advisor] Richard Pearle, who is going on and on about how we’re ultimately going to win the war against evil once and for all.”

Some insist that progress is being made. Does the apprehension of Saddam Hussein lessen or increase the sum total of evil in the world, as President Bush asserted in his State of the Union address?

“Someone asked me when Saddam Hussein was captured what I thought. And I said, ‘Well, they’ve done wonderfully, haven’t they? Congratulations. You’ve reduced foreign policy to a bad video game.'”

It might be argued that the Cuban missile crisis too was reduced to a bad video game. Theorists even came up with a name for that method of who-blinks-first engagement: Game Theory.

“There’s not a danger of things repeating,” Morris notes. “They’re already repeating.”

The Fog of War has already earned huge acclaim. The Boston Society of Film Critics, The Independent Spirit Awards, The National Board of Review and the Online Film Critics Society have all named it Best Documentary, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association named it Best Non-Fiction Film of 2003. And this, for the most part, all came before the film even opened nationally.

On Tuesday Morris’s staff got word that their film had been nominated for an Academy Award. It is Morris’s first nomination, and though it has become tedious to point out that Oscars are more about buzz and politicking than artistic merit, it is nevertheless true, and with Fog of War, Morris has a perverse advantage. If you look back over the last eight winners of the Best Feature Documentary winners, you’ll notice a theme: They all deal with causes close to the hearts of Hollywood players. Five have concerned either the Holocaust or broader Jewish issues (Anne Frank Remembered, The Long Way Home, The Last Days, One Day in September and Into the Arms of Strangers), and two have dealt with gun culture, racism and injustice in various permutations (Bowling for Columbine and Murder on a Sunday Morning). The only one that doesn’t fit neatly into the Hollywood liberal paradigm is When We Were Kings, which of course is about Muhammad Ali, whom, among other things, was hailed and reviled for his vocal opposition to the war in Vietnam.

Now we have a film whose lessons strike near to the hearts of Hollywood’s liberals, a galvanic set piece that opponents of the war can point to in order to lend ballast to their arguments: There is nothing new here, see? We’re right. We’ve been down this road before. It ended badly then, and if history is any indication, it will end badly again. Of course they’re speaking to the issue and not necessarily the portrayal, but that’s how these things go. If anything is going to appeal to Hollywood at a maddened, divisive time like the present, it’s probably going to be this film, in spite of all the questions it leaves unanswered, and in spite of what may or may not be its fatalistic streak. It’s not typical Hollywood fare, for sure. But then again, it is strangely Hollywood.

Hollywood notwithstanding, it’s this often jarring mix of hope and fatalism that marks all of Morris’ films, elevates them from pat documentaries to full-blown philosophical meditations. The paradox extends to the man himself: the endless grappling with the Big Questions, the Central Themes, the unknown, the unseen, the counterfactuals upon counterfactuals upon counterfactuals, shades of gray, the arbitrary distinctions of weakness and strength, reason and madness. Everything is fluid and nothing is fully knowable, but that’s just the state of things. Ignore it and be fucked.

“But you asked me if I was a misanthrope,” Morris chuckles, “or if I had a dim view of humanity. Well, I’d describe myself as a secular anti-humanist.”