The Fog of War

February, 2004, Documentary

Directed by:Errol Morris

Starring:Robert McNamara

The Fog of War

Documentaries have experienced a resurgence in the past few years, first on cable television and then as feature presentations, winning larger audiences and demonstrating that interesting subjects can be presented with the same cinematic skill and creativity found in good fictional work. Winged Migration, Spellbound, and To Be And To Have are three of the best recent examples, now joined by the first "must see" movie of 2004, Errol Morris' examination of former defense secretary Robert McNamara. 

Part "talking head" interview, part brilliant presentation of archival newsreel material, the film traces the former cabinet officer's military experiences from his service in WW II through his dismissal by President Johnson as Secretary of Defense after serving Kennedy and Johnson in that capacity for over seven years in the 60's. This is vivid, living history combined with brilliant filmmaking; it ought to be seen by everyone old enough to vote, regardless of personal political convictions. 

After Fred Wiseman, Morris can lay claim to being this country's best known documentarian; his The Thin Blue Line, released in 1988, led to the release of a man wrongly convicted of murder and vaulted the director into the pantheon of those who work in this genre. Never have the men in front and behind the camera been more perfectly paired; McNamara's capacity for sweeping, pungent statements matched, syllable for syllable, by the director's uncanny ability to visually realize the impact of his subject's thoughts. (Having served with McNamara on two different boards over a decade and a half, I can personally testify that his "often in error but never in doubt" persona is perfectly captured here.)

McNamara may be one of the most controversial and misunderstood figures in American public life in the last half of the 20th century and certainly one of the few cabinet members of any administration in that time period whose name produces such instantaneous reaction, both positive and negative. Praise him or damn him, he still strides across this country's landscape unapologetically insisting it's vitally important that we learn from our past mistakes even as we blunder into situations that threaten to recreate them. 

The Secretary's critics--and there are many-- accuse him of (1) too readily supporting the Administration's initial role in the Vietnam War, (2) pursuing its expansion under Johnson and then (3) failing to publicly oppose its continuation after being fired by Johnson in 1967. But the film provides a valuable summary of McNamara's own military experience in WW II, America's near-universal paranoia following the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the "domino effect" argument in our strategic view of Southeast Asia, which lay the groundwork for McNamara's credible insistence that he vigorously attempted to convince Johnson to disengage in the Vietnam as well as his growing conviction that we were stumbling towards precisely the disaster that conflict turned out to be.

Morris structures his film around 11 "lessons" McNamara believes his career has taught him about dealing with America's adversaries. Each segment begins with a conventional television-type interview of the Secretary, whose no-nonsense style launches McNamara into the particular point he wants to make. As he does so, the screen fills with shot after shot of archival footage on the issue being discussed. The scope of these images, (there may be a thousand of them) stretches from McNamara's youth to the present day, frequently capturing the impact of the points McNamara makes even more eloquently than his words; in describing his role as a member of General Curtis LeMay's staff in WW II for example, the camera first examines old Army records summarizing the horrific effectiveness of LeMay's firebombing of Japanese cities in the waning days of the war and the screen then fills with pictures of an American  B-52 bomber dropping bombs which morph into the numbers McNamara recites on the soundtrack.

Morris shoots the interview using a grayish backdrop intersected by lines which run at odd angles to its subject; as the camera returns again and again to McNamara, it shifts viewpoint, so that he appears unable to quite find his balance in the frame, suggesting that for all his breezy self-confidence, McNamara-at 85-still struggles to see himself and the events of which he's been such an important part in an accurate and balanced way. He's in search of ethical principles that can be employed in the pursuit of violent conflict; if he hasn't yet found them, he certainly offers valuable cautions about the false premises and certitudes that punctuated his own experience in public office. But for all his willingness to be judged on that record, McNamara's private life remains his own; questions that intrude into his relationship with wife and family are politely--but summarily--rejected.

Without consciously intending to do so, (work started on this movie before 9/11), Morris has provided American audiences with a valuable opportunity to ponder our current obsession, (the "war" on global terrorism) with the weary wisdom McNamara's gained from his own painful role in U.S. military affairs. As a result, Morris has created a film that's "important" in every sense of the word. 

Don't miss it. 

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