A key player reexamines crucial world events


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

Starring: Robert McNamara

Directed by: Errol Morris

Errol Morris’s documentary, “The Fog of War,” presents a candid and emotional account of one man’s involvement in major events of the 20th century.

Robert S. McNamara, secretary of Defense under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, reveals the rationale behind decisions regarding the World War II Japanese firebombings, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War. Morris divides the film into 11 lessons McNamara learned throughout his controversial career, from “Empathize with your enemy” to “You can’t change human nature.”

In retrospect, McNamara admits that he made mistakes. But when immersed in the fog of war, the situation is “beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables.” As decades of headlines denouncing his actions roll by, McNamara declares that the critics accusing him of duplicity are wrong – he tried to serve the president and avoid nuclear war.

When McNamara was out of the political sphere, he became director, and later president, of the Ford Motor Company. The loss of lives to car accidents was a problem McNamara addressed with experimentation, such as dropping human skulls down several flights of stairs with various forms of padding. The image of skulls shattering in slow motion on cement floors is eerie, but McNamara calmly informs us that it was necessary to save lives. It is with the same calculated mentality that he justifies his actions throughout his life: “In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.”

Morris’ interviews with McNamara are shot with the aid of Morris’ invention, the Interrotron. The device sits just above the lens of the camera, projecting Morris’ image as he interrogates the subject. McNamara is forced to stare almost directly into the camera, resulting in eye contact with the audience and the increased sense of maintaining a direct conversation with the interviewee.

Although interview segments are shot in the “talking heads” format, Morris frequently cuts mid-sentence to tighten the statements and add an edge of urgency. McNamara is seldom dead center, and the varied distances and angles avert the possibility of a tired image. Philip Glass’ haunting, foreboding score intensifies the occasionally tearful recollections and observations of the man critics called an arrogant dictator.

Wartime archival footage blends into McNamara’s interviews, presenting brutal reality alongside stark confessions. The most poignant moment falls under Lesson No. 5, “Proportionality should be a guideline of war.” Months before the nuclear bombing of Japan, McNamara was involved in the firebombing of 67 Japanese cities. As we’re carried over the smoking aftermath, each city’s percentage of destruction is compared to an American city of comparable size. The statistics fly by (Philadelphia, 54%; Chicago, 42%), finally moving too fast to process.

Between interview segments and stock footage, “Fog of War” reveals written or verbal communication between major players in 20th century history. Morris shows us the spinning reels of phone conversations between McNamara and the presidents, revealing Cold War anxieties and tense debate regarding the proper course of action. McNamara chillingly insists that nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis was averted purely by luck.

When asked if he feels guilt about the Vietnam War, McNamara drops his candor for the first time. Although he firmly asserts that he encouraged Kennedy and Johnson to pull troops out of Vietnam years before the Paris Peace Accords, he will not address this question. With that moment of McNamara’s inability to discuss the issue, Morris effectively reveals the human behind the controversy.

Kristen DiLemmo 15 February 2004

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