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The Fog of War
At only one point does
Robert S. McNamara cry in The Fog of War. Its when he talks about the 1963
assassination of John F. Kennedy, the president who invited him into his administration
and made him the youngest person ever to serve as U.S. Secretary of Defense.
Its the most sentimental moment in Errol Morris new
documentary, an important and fascinating study of a controversial man whose primary role
in, and insight into, late 20th century warfare and politics provide valuable food for
thought decades later, at the outset of a new century.
McNamara does apologize for errors. The man widely considered the major
architect behind U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War offers an all-too-true disclaimer
that registers dramatically in light of contemporary world affairs. Stating that human
nature cannot be changed, McNamara describes the inherent "fog of war." In war,
"It is beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. We kill
people unnecessarily," he admits.
More than a 106-minute interview in which McNamara, an unabashedly
articulate guy at 85, offers up personal reminiscences, The Fog of War also works
as a civics and history lesson, biased as it may be. Documentarian Morris, known for
unorthodox, non-fictions such as Mr.
Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (profiling an electric chair
inventor) and The
Thin Blue Line, (about the retrial of a man convicted of murdering a Dallas
police officer), doesnt attempt to present an "objective" version of
events here. McNamara is the sole commentator, interrupted only briefly by Morris, who
uses his "Interrotron," a teleprompter-type device that coaxes McNamara to look
directly into the camera, ultimately allowing the audience to make eye contact with him.
(McNamara initially balks at the machine, but soon changes his mind.)
But Morris masterfully weaves other elements into the interview
sequences. Previously unseen footage of Gulf of Tonkin reenactments from the National
Archives, taped discussions between McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson, appropriately
eerie music by Philip Glass and artful graphics of dominoes falling on maps create a new
story about a pivotal time in American history.
While its a compelling history for people too young to remember
McNamara, its also particularly relevant to followers of history who have read
biographies of McNamara or his own books. Even anti-war protesters of the era who remember
McNamara as a hawk with an out-of-control conceit will appreciate the guys candor
and intelligence as he remembers, and accounts for, his storied past. To put it bluntly,
hes darned likable.
The movie presents significant new material, including a Cuban missile
crisis scenario that doesnt simply point to John and Bobby Kennedys bravery.
McNamara also discusses Gen. Curtis LeMays firebombing of dozens of Japanese cities
in 1945, and the B-29 bombers that killed 100,000 people in Tokyo in March, 1945
five months before the atomic devastation in Hiroshima.
McNamara and Morris hinge their history on 11 lessons, or tenets, of
war, which provide a handy framework for the films provocative anecdotes: 1)
Empathize with your enemy; 2) Rationality will not save us; 3) Theres something
beyond oneself; 4) Maximize efficiency; 5) Proportion should be a guideline in war: 6) Get
the data; 7) Belief and seeing are both often wrong; 8) Be prepared to reexamine your
reasoning; 9) In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil; 10) Never say never;
and the aforementioned 11) You cant change human nature.
While the movie mostly focuses on the Vietnam era, it also touches on
lesser-known facets of McNamaras life that are equally as interesting as the
military material. Born in San Francisco in 1916, McNamaras middle name actually is
"Strange." He attended the University of California, Berkeley as an
undergraduate and went to Harvard Business school, where he became a faculty member. He
worked at Ford Motor Co. in Detroit, and went on to become the first non-family member to
be named president. His tenure in the job was a brief five weeks, though. He was lured
away by Kennedys offer to join his administration.
After leaving Johnsons White House ("I dont know
whether I quit or was fired," he remarks), he became president of the World Bank from
1968-81. Clearly a man to be reckoned with, the savvy McNamara even acknowledges his
interview strategy. He says, "Never answer the question that has been asked of you,
answer the question you wish had been asked of you." He probably does the latter in The
Fog of War. But its a fine testament to a thoughtful director that McNamara
certainly has done the former, too. The inventive Morris presents McNamara as a complex
character with a soul as well as smarts. McNamara says to the camera, "Im
sorry. I made errors." He goes on, "A lot of people misunderstand me,"
adding, "We are rational, but reason has limits.
- Leslie Katz