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McNamara Sees Through ‘The Fog of War’
by Jeremy Mathews

“The Fog of War”
Sony Picture Classics
Directed by Errol Morris
Produced by Julie Bilson Ahlberg, Errol Morris and Michael Williams
Featuring Robert S. McNamara
Rated PG-13
Opening at the Tower

(out of four)

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 its implications.

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 apologizes.

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.

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