Robert McNamara as himself
For seven years between 1960 and 1967, Robert McNamara served as United States Secretary of Defense under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. In that time, he played a key role in the Cuban missile crisis, as well as the beginnings of the Vietnam War, taking much of the brunt of the blame when it became obvious that the latter had gone horribly wrong.
The Fog of War, is a documentary about McNamara, directed by Errol Morris, who has established a reputation as one of the country’s finest documentarians with movies like Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line, and Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control. The crux of the movie is Morris’ extensive interviews with McNamara, utilizing Morris’ innovative interview device called “The Interrotron”, which keeps the interviewer in a separate room from his subject, who only sees his interviewer on a monitor. This technique allows the subject look directly into the camera, and the isolation allows McNamara to be frank about all aspects of his life during wartime. Although McNamara does talk about his childhood and his short reign as the President of the Ford Company, the film mainly focuses on his military career during World War 2 and his time in one of the most stressful and demanding cabinet positions.
Told as a series of “lessons” learned over the course of McNamara’s life, some from his mistakes or possible errors in judgment, the film uses many different styles of filmmaking to tell the story, including actual archival footage close-ups of various newspapers and documents from the era. To drive home some of the points made by McNamara, Morris uses stark images, accompanied by one of the most beautiful and haunting scores by Phillip Glass. When McNamara talks about the casualties of war, Morris shows images of dominoes falling, which are repeated throughout the movie. The description of the casualties sustained on Japan during the U.S. firebombings of 1945 is given a clearer perspective by comparing the Japanese cities to their American counterparts. Hearing about all of the death and destruction will probably make you sick to your stomach, as you realize that some of it could have been avoided. McNamara even admits as such.
Although he’s clearly remorseful of his participation, McNamara seems very full of himself, showing a pride and strength of resolution one might expect from someone used to holding vast amounts of power. The taped phone conversations between McNamara and President Johnson as they try to decide what to do about the “Vietnam problem” are particularly scary, as they make it even less clear who was really responsible. One only truly gets one perspective on the events, because McNamara survived many of the other players in the atrocities described, and it’s easy enough for him to point fingers or lay blame elsewhere. Still, it’s quite impressive that McNamara is so cognizant of the facts over 40 years after the events, since he is well into his 80’s now.
The only technical flaw with the film is a bit of choppy editing during the actual interviews. While probably done to tighten up McNamara’s answers, it looks like his answers were altered in the editing, forcing one to question Morris’ intentions. Having protested against the war himself, Morris, presented as a disembodied voice jutting into McNamara’s trips down memory lane, does not seem sympathetic to his subject, which seems to go against one of the primary rules of documentary filmmaking. One wonders whether Morris’ motivations were to show McNamara as a brutal monster responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people-both his own soldiers and their victims-of to show him as someone who made mistakes and hopes that others will learn from them.
Whether you’re politically inclined or don’t care much about American history, the movie is educational. Hearing stories of World War 2 from someone behind the scenes is far more powerful than some of the fictional movies made of the war, and his angle on the Cuban Missile Crisis makes one appreciate Kevin Costner’s 13 Weeks that much more. Many of McNamara’s lessons can also be applied to everyday life situations, not just war.
In a year full of powerful documentaries, The Fog of War is another masterpiece, worthy of the recognition it will likely get. Like the Academy Award winning Bowling for Columbine last year, it is an important and timely documentary that needs to be seen by the widest audience possible, if only due to its parallels with the current situation in Iraq. The irony that “Columbine” director Michael Moore railed against the war in his Oscar acceptance speech will surely be lost on his critics if “Fog of War” becomes its successor.
The Fog of War opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, December 19th, and will expand to other cities over the course of January and February.