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Vol. 3, No. 1, 2004

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Robert J. Lewis
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reviewed by


Colin Speaker reviewed this film for Columbia Political Review.


McNamaraErrol Morris’ new documentary, Fog of War -- essentially a neatly packaged, extended interview with former Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara -- starts off very promisingly, not unlike McNamara’s career in Washington. Vivid cuts back and forth between an aged, stately McNamara and the events in which he was intimately and infamously involved immediately grab the audience’s attention. McNamara, who took part in handling many of the major international crises of the second half of the 20th century only to see his name and reputation permanently disgraced by the tragic folly of the Vietnam War, certainly has ample material to discuss. And despite a directorial style that sometimes clutters the material, Morris has put together an interesting, insightful, and provocative film. It makes the viewer an active participant in discerning the intentions and culpabilities behind events that occurred over thirty years ago -- but that continue to cast their long shadow over American foreign policy as powerfully as ever.

Morris succeeds in covering most of the major events in McNamara’s life. The director details McNamara’s early career, as ambition and restless energy drive him from academia to the Army’s strategic services division and later to the Ford Motor Company, where he rose to the presidency. It wasn’t long before newly elected President John Kennedy asked McNamara to be his secretary of defence, a position that McNamara cautiously accepted and continued to occupy through Lyndon Johnson’s administration. In this capacity McNamara oversaw American foreign entanglements such as the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis, and, most disastrously, the Vietnam War.

In covering the major events in McNamara’s life, Morris gives the audience a view of the former defence secretary as a family man, in nice counterpoint to the warmonger image we’ve grown used to. In the interview, McNamara makes many statements about the nature of life, death, and the difficult decisions he was forced to make, statements that are both insightful and profound. He conveys in tragic terms the difficulty of learning from one’s mistakes even after they’ve been committed multiple times. Such moments help make Fog of War a compelling glimpse into the mind of a man who helped shape so much of America’s direction in the 1960s.

But the problems with the film are directly related to this glimpse. McNamara, even with only a sentence or two on a particular issue, gives the audience plenty of material to think about well after the film has ended. Yet Morris, in an off-camera questioning style that reminds you of a presidential debate crossed with old home video narration, usually fails to follow up on McNamara’s thought-provoking comments. Instead, Morris is content to allow the material to speak for itself, even when McNamara’s remarks beg for a response. For instance, in scenes separated by thirty minutes, McNamara first questions anyone’s ability to remember a set of events exactly and precisely, and later recalls, with asserted accuracy and in detail, each of the specific events of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Instead of using the clips in juxtaposition to drive home a thematic point, Morris seems content to let each of McNamara’s statements drift in the wind, to be understood by the audience at its leisure.

Morris’s interviewing and editing style leads to predictably disappointing results. Parts of Fog of War come off as too sympathetic to a historical figure who was in no small part responsible for the United States’ involvement in Vietnam and the nearly fifty thousand American deaths there. McNamara, who has long been cagey and defensive in his accounts of the Vietnam era, does not lie or try to hide his guilt in this film. Indeed, he tears up at times when recalling events for which he bore responsibility. The problem lies rather with Morris’s own eagerness to opt for voyeuristic questions (“Do you feel guilty?”) over more pertinent ones, time and again.

If at times his elliptical editing frustrates, at other moments Morris can be peculiarly unsubtle. He interweaves into McNamara’s interview largely symbolic, didactic visual effects, like dominoes falling across a map of East Asia or statistics on the Japanese firebomb victims in World War II. The technique works quite well . . . initially. One wonders why the director doesn’t trust his subject to make points sufficiently clear to the viewer without the gimmicks, which become trite and tiresome by the end of the film. Morris’s style at times obscures the material -- but perhaps the film is not ultimately about the historical record. Maybe Fog of War is really about the inevitable, tragic conflict between the subjective will of an individual and the superhumanly difficult decisions that individual must carry out. McNamara’s restated theme throughout is that people make mistakes, and they tend to make them many times before they change their ways. In effect, these mistakes are simply magnified when one is entrusted with responsibility for thousands of lives.

In the end, Fog of War is a movie well worth seeing, if only for its insights into compelling historical issues and reflections on a war whose ghosts we still can’t seem to shake, and for its visceral impressions of the difficulty one man faces in making decisions that might benefit the country -- while irreparably harming thousands of its citizens.


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