Fog of War”
Sony Picture Classics
Directed by Errol Morris
Produced by Julie Bilson Ahlberg, Errol Morris and
Featuring Robert S. McNamara
Opening at the Tower
When historical figures like Robert S. McNamara
want to put on record their account of events, they
usually go to fact-obsessed journalists or biographers.
McNamara, however, somehow ended up with Errol Morris,
that legendary documentarian who’s always more
interested in the characters behind their topics
than the simple order of events. “The Fog of
War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara” reveals
not only important insights about the former U.S.
secretary of defense’s involvement in the Vietnam
War and other offensives, but studies the personality
of a larger-than-life figure associated with one
of the United States’ most controversial wars.
The film resulted from 20 hours of interviews between
McNamara, still sharp and alert at age 85, and Morris.
McNamara discusses his life and the philosophy he’s
developed over the years. The subject matter is hypnotic
enough, but Morris creates an engaging character
study to accompany the timely comments on war and
The film briefly summarizes a bit of biographical
information, including McNamara’s work at the
Ford Motor Company and late-in-life career as president
of the World Bank, to focus on his involvement with
the Vietnam War in John F. Kennedy’s administration
and the war’s escalation in Lyndon B. Johnson’s
administration after JFK’s assassination.
McNamara is surprisingly frank about his involvement
in that war and in World War II, when he was involved
in the carpet-bombing of Japan. He says that if his
side had lost, he would have been found guilty of
war crimes. Most of the film deals with his experiences
as secretary of defense, and he discusses the Cuban
Missile Crisis, in which luck helped save the world
from nuclear annihilation while leaders with good
intentions dealt with a confusing mess.
The film also looks at Vietnam and how it grew under
Johnson. With organizational assistance from Morris,
McNamara reveals his 11 lessons. They include the
particularly timely “Get the data,” as
well as “Empathize with your enemy” and “Belief
and seeing are both often wrong.” It appears
that the current administration’s members didn’t
receive any advice before making their recent decisions.
While McNamara speaks openly, he obviously doesn’t
want to make himself look like the evil war hawk
some see him as being. Morris’ noisily inquisitive
off-screen questioning is neither idolizing nor venomous
as he simply tries to excavate his subject’s
thoughts and hear the truth. McNamara hasn’t
slowed down with age and delivers much of his information
in long, thought-out narratives.
Late in the film, there are some clips of McNamara
avoiding questions with friendly dismissals, saying
he’d get himself in trouble if he answered.
This combines with the stubborn techniques of Morris,
allowing bold, simple statements like “we were
wrong,” even if McNamara never comes out and
Morris is one of few documentarians who can keep
a talking-head style interesting. This is in large
part due to a device he invented called an Interrotron,
which allows his interviewees to look directly at
the camera and into his eyes at the same time. The
effect is similar to that of taking part in a fascinating
conversation, and you only lose eye contact with
the interviewee if he breaks with Morris.
Morris typically has some of the best-looking additional
material used in documentaries. The most striking
image of the film is that of a set-up of dominoes
tumbling down, reflecting wars running away from
those who think they control them. There’s
also a slew of archival material of McNamara and
related events seamlessly edited in with the interview
footage to enhance the concepts. This all happens
over a low-key, driving score by Philip Glass that
adds an extra layer of urgency to the material.
As McNamara’s lessons and thoughts demonstrate,
political leaders often have to make decisions in
chaotic, murky situations. Just as intelligence is
challenged today, facts were also unclear during
the Cuban Missile Crisis when it was necessary to
act quickly. Leaders are human beings and need to
keep in mind the large and long-term consequences
of their actions. Even if McNamara doesn’t
say he’s sorry, he admits to making mistakes.
The great tragedy is the grand-scale effects that
human mistakes can have.
Any well-done interview with McNamara would be
important simply for historic and archival purposes.
Morris has created a work that arrives with (accidentally)
perfect timing and is also a fine artistic achievement.