The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)
Starring: Robert S. McNamara
Directed By: Errol Morris
I rented The Fog of War a few weeks ago, but haven't gotten around to reviewing it. I wanted to share some thoughts on it, but never felt like actually writing them. I kept thinking that I'd have to do too much research to provide info for the anticipated questions (an old habit from a liberal arts student). If you want to know more about the film, I'm sure there's some digital information source available somewhere that will provide information.
The movie won the 2004 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature for its portrayal of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who served under President John F. Kennedy and his successor Lyndon B. Johnson. Thus, he served during the Cuban Missile Crises and their entry into the Vietnam Conflict. This has made McNamara one of the most controversial figures of the past half century.
The documentary is basically an extended interview with the then 86 year old McNamara, with clips inter-spliced in between. The clips help keep the film visually interesting, but the bulk of the movie is a shot of McNamara talking into the camera. In doing this, director Errol Morris employs his special "interrotron", a video device that allows Morris and his subjects to look into each other's eyes while also looking directly into the camera lens. Thus, McNamara is looking the viewing audience in the eye, as opposed to looking off to the side. This combines with the fascinating stories that McNamara shares to create an incredibly captivating film. You wouldn't think that an hour and a half of an old guy talking would be so enthralling, but it is.
A lot of this has to do with the frankness with which McNamara tackles the issues at hand. He is incredibly sharp on the issues and memories of his time in service, seemingly not losing a day since the 60's. He speaks intelligently and at length over how close the world came to nuclear holocaust over Cuba (it was closer than we want to think about), how he and JFK didn't want to get too involved in Vietnam, introducing seat belts while working with Ford before joining JFK's cabinet, the failings of Vietnam, and, surprisingly, his role in the firebombings of Japan during WWII. His descriptions of WWII are the strongest moments of the film, when he reflects on the comments made by General Curtis LeMay, who felt they would've been tried and convicted as war criminals had the US lost the war over their bombings of Japan. McNamara stops just short of apologising for his actions, as he does not apologise throughout the film, but you can tell by his reaction that he sees it as one of his biggest regrets. Perhaps he does not regret the decision, given the costs of that war, but he may regret that it felt necessary at the time.
The movie is especially significant in the current atmosphere, as the US seems to be embroiling itself in another Vietnam-like quagmire. One would hope that current (or, even more hopefully, the future) administration could see this film and reflect upon the lessons McNamara presents in it. Sadly, the current (and hopefully, soon-to-be former) administration doesn't seem to do so well with opposing visions. He certainly doesn't subscribe to McNamara's rule "If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merits of our cause, we'd better reexamine our reasoning", but he does seem like he's got the "in order to do good, you may have to engage in evil" one down pat.
The movie is uncompromising look at the turbulent life of Robert McNamara, that I found utterly fascinating. There are reviewers out there that will question the legitimacy of the history put forth by man once known as Mr. Death. Such reviewers fail to understand the true nature of history. History is not the pursuit of truth, for truth is too elusive a subject to ever truly be revealed. History, rather is the answers to the questions we ask about the past. To that end, who better to ask than the man who was at the centre of some of the most controversial moments of the past 40 years?