Fog of War
2003Director: Errol Morris
Cast: Robert McNamara
an a person’s life be defined by just one particular event in which they were involved? What is the true measure of an individual’s worth or goodness? Is history forever bound to repeat itself? Does nuclear war mean the end of civilization?
These are just a few of the questions raised by Errol Morris’ The Fog of War, subtitled Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara. Morris, arguably America’s greatest non-fiction filmmaker (Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line), began interviewing McNamara (an extraordinarily sharp 85 years old at filming time) before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The events that would follow, as the unlikely pair’s more than twenty hours of interviews progressed, lend the film not only a staggering relevance to the here and now, but a legitimate sense of urgency. While the film focuses on McNamara’s pivotal role in 20th century politics, The Fog of War ultimately has as at least much to say about the present (and the future) as it does the past.
McNamara, who served as Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, is frequently villanized as being the architect of the Vietnam War. Though fingers are pointed provocatively in the directions of Johnson and General Curtis LeMay, Morris by no means excuses McNamara for the role that he played in America’s involvement in Vietnam, and, however thoughtful he may come across, McNamara doesn’t go so far as to repent for old sins either (as he puts it in the film’s epilogue, "I’d rather be damned if I don’t."). Still, in light of America's current ill-informed invasion, McNamara’s confessions and contemplations of wartime leadership and decision-making feel inadvertently revelatory; the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq are downright eerie.
As an eye-opening examination of the political turbulence of the '60s (from the Cuban Missile Crisis on through Vietnam) The Fog of War functions as an uncanny companion piece to J. Hoberman’s excellent 2003 book, The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties. Both are filled to the brim with more enlightening facts and figures than I could begin to quote here, but each also succeeds brilliantly as a vital work even beyond their importance as a history lesson.
Morris’ aspirations are clearly much broader than that. If the film’s immediate relevance is strikingly coincidental, it would still remain an indelible look back at a man’s life, regardless of what happened to be going on at present in the world. Through Morris’ seamless skill at complementing his interviews with archival footage and other fitting visual aids, we witness the rise and fall of McNamara, the Berkeley wunderkind, whose first memory, at age two, was of crowds celebrating in the streets following America’s victory in World War I.
McNamara displays genuine, if reluctant, remorse when discussing his part in the use of fire-bombing during World War II, admitting that had the United States lost the war, he would—and should—have been tried as a war criminal. Moments later, the same man beams with pride as he talks about the integral role that he played in the installation of seat belts in American automobiles, while working for Ford Motor Company (of which he briefly acted as president, before abdicating the post to serve as Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense). The film’s most deeply moving moment finds McNamara emotionally overwhelmed, tearing up as he speaks sincerely about personally picking out the spot for Kennedy’s gravestone in Arlington National Cemetery.
The Fog of War is as poignant an autumnal portrait as Godard’s JLG/JLG. As an emblem of the Great American Tragedy, Robert Strange McNamara is as complex and compelling a subject as Charles Foster Kane. To paraphrase Marlene Dietrich’s famous final line from a later Welles masterpiece, "He [is] some kind of a man..."
By: Josh Timmermann
Published on: 2004-03-12