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The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From The Life of Robert S. McNamara (PG-13) (2003)

Sony Pictures Classics

Official Site

Director: Errol Morris

Producer: Julie Bilson Ahlberg, Errol Morris, Michael Williams

Cast: Robert McNamara, Fidel Castro, Barry Goldwater, Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy

Rating: out of 5

Toward the end of Errol Morris’s compelling but oddly unsatisfying documentary, The Fog Of War, an uncharacteristically emotional statement is made by the movie’s only interview subject, Robert Strange McNamara: To be in charge of a potentially unjust and unwinnable war, he says, is “a very difficult position for sensitive human beings to be in. And I think I was one.” It’s an unusual admission for a man long-reviled both as one of the chief architects of LBJ’s escalation of the Vietnam War and as an uncongenial, arrogant know-it-all tied to an unwavering belief in statistical analysis. Such is the nature of Morris’s film, a tricky balancing act between the political events that are central to McNamara’s life and the portrait of McNamara, the carefully guarded person, that doesn’t quite come off.

The majority of the film is constructed out of archival footage, which places Morris in an unfamiliar position: He’s used to creating some of the most remarkable and entrancing images found in either documentary or narrative films. Here he’s mostly stuck with extensive manipulation of newsreels, TV reportage, still photos, and the like, a challenge he approaches with characteristic vigor. Footage is slowed-down, still photographs polarized to give the illusion of depth, and interesting pixelations found in still portraits; he even menacingly moves over a map of combat terrain, simulating a helicopter shot over an abstract representation. Still, you miss the flashes of devastating visual insight that came in earlier films, like the moment in Mr. Death when Holocaust denier and electric chair designer Fred A. Leuchter was shown as a small child playing obliviously in a darkened room without seeing the context of what he was doing, or the editing schemes which connected four seemingly disparate individuals in Fast, Cheap And Out of Control. The one visual holdover here is his distinctive interview style, by now perfected: Using his own device, the Interrotron, he’s able to sit back and project his own image at his subject, who then is able to respond looking straight back at the image and the camera, as if talking directly to it.

Still, a few moments of astonishing grace remain. One comes when discussing McNamara’s time at GM, where he discovered how important seatbelts are in reducing auto-accident casualties by dropping skulls down stairwells: Morris replicates the falls and crashes in slow-motion. That’s just a diversion from the main issue, which is Vietnam. Here Morris shows us the famous Domino Theory, the misguided foreign policy idea that the collapse of Vietnam to communism would in turn lead to the fall of many smaller countries to communism. He shows the fall of a row of dominoes in slow-motion and, later, when McNamara talks about how he knows unspecified ways by which history would have turned out differently, he reverses the footage and has the dominoes all stand up again, visually implicating that particular piece of Cold War ideology as responsible for the war.

Morris leads off with the Cuban Missile Crisis, then flashes back and takes McNamara’s career from the beginning. In World War II, he’s positioned as the inverse image of Gen. Curtis LeMay, the victorious commander of Strategic Air Command who was also exactly the kind of bomb-crazy asshole parodied by Rod Steiger in Mars Attacks! LeMay, unflatteringly served by slow-motion reduxes of newsreel footage that make his eye-rolling and throat-swallowing look positively reptilian, took McNamara’s statistics and concluded that fire-bombing Tokyo was necessary, in the process killing thousands of civilians. A man of strictly military temperament, he serves as McNamara’s foil, always keeping the goal of defending the US without any ethical compunctions whatsoever. McNamara, still haunted by his policy decisions, invokes T.S. Eliot to describe his moral confusion. (LeMay, incidentally, was the same demented gentlemen who, as George Wallace’s vice-presidential candidate in 1968, announced: “We seem to have a phobia about nuclear weapons. I think most military men think it’s just another weapon in the arsenal… I think there are many times when it would be most efficient to use nuclear weapons.”)

Because the film only has one interview subject, Morris’s voice is heard more often than usual asking questions, straining slightly to be heard from behind the camera. McNamara, nearly always poised, is articulate at all times and doesn’t hide beyond obvious obfuscations. Morris is, primarily, an artist and not an activist (which explains problems like these the more knowledgeable have with his film). What’s clear, though, is that McNamara is involved in quite a bit of self-flagellation. His opponents would argue that that’s not enough for the man viewed by many as the primary architect of the Vietnam debacle, but the film makes a compelling case that, at the very least, McNamara deserves a re-evaluation as a man of good intent, if poor thinking.

—Vadim Rizov


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