Speaker reviewed this film for
Columbia Political Review.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.