Movie Reviews
10:08 am
Fri March 5, 2004

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

Like any top-rate documentary, applications to human nature and current events abound.

Errol Morris's "Fog of War" may be the best documentary that fuses a controversial historical figure (in this case, Robert McNamara) with his grandest moment (The Vietnam War). "Grand" is ironic because 58,000 dead soldiers cannot be "grand," the US exit was hardly so, and McNamara's ambivalence about the event and his responsibility give the film an authenticity and humanity that last year was shared only with "Capturing the Friedmans."

Morris, letting McNamara narrate almost the entire film, cuts between the fit 85 year old Aspen skier recollecting the '60's and 70's and footage from that time when he served as secretary of defense under Kennedy and Johnson. That he is a Harvard--educated, clean-cut, brainy bureaucrat easily changing from leading Ford Motor Company to the Pentagon is obvious. That he allowed the US to go deeper into the war than he personally believed it should is a possible inference from his carefully-crafted dialogue about "responsibility."

He has no problem admitting his major role in firebombing Tokyo in WWII, killing 100,000 Japanese in one night; his boss, General Curtis LeMay, would have had it no other way. But when he almost wistfully speculates that President Kennedy would not have let the war escalate, it is clear what McNamara also wished. But why he didn't criticize the war after he left the Johnson administration he let's us speculate, hinting only that he had information we don't.

Throughout the interview (Morris now and then is heard asking questions, especially about McNamara's responsibility), Morris keeps him in the right side of the frame, off center as a metaphor for the confusing war and this secretary's ambivalent role. Like any top-rate documentary, applications to human nature and current events abound.

The cool necessary to operate under murderous circumstances is reflected in this wonk's slick hair, rimless glasses, and self-serving dialogue. He is animated when he most seems to have missed the point and embraces the romance of evil, which one of his "lessons" says may be necessary to have in order to do good. The parallel to the war in Iraq is painful. He warns in his first "lesson" we must learn from our mistakes. The inference for us could be, if Vietnam was a great mistake, why are we forgetting it again.

For the former secretary, Ernie Pyle's words could hold special meaning: "War makes strange giant creatures out of us little routine men who inhabit the earth."