Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 95 minutes
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“We all make mistakes.” ^ Robert S. McNamara
Errol Morris has revolutionized documentary filmmaking with his quirky, thoughtful portraits of, among other subjects, a lion tamer, a robot builder, a scientific genius, people who bury their pets in cemeteries and a self-taught executioner. In his latest, he turns his lens on Robert S. McNamara and the surprise is the former secretary of defense may be the director’s most singular subject yet.
McNamara is one of American history’s great shapeshifters and, as Morris discovered, his life story comprises a bracing cautionary tale for our times. In trademark fashion, the filmmaker splits the production between stark close ups and elegantly edited archival footage and ties everything together with a score by Philip Glass. The 86-year-old addresses the camera seated in front of a simple backdrop. He wears a blue power suit and a variety of expressions which runs the gamut from exasperation and rage to tearful regret.
It’s amazing how many lives the guy has lived. At Berkeley and then at Harvard, he distinguished himself as a student of philosophy and logic. At one time, he was the youngest assistant professor in Harvard’s history. With the advent of World War II he became a high ranking military strategist. Not long after that, he rose through the executive ranks to become the first president of Ford not to carry any of Henry’s DNA. Five weeks later Robert Kennedy telephoned on behalf of his brother and offered McNamara his choice of posts: secretary of the treasury or secretary of defense.
One can only imagine how many times McNamara has contemplated how differently both his life and his country might have turned out had he chosen the former rather than the latter. The tragedy of Vietnam and McNamara’s seven years as its principal architect are the primary focus of “The Fog of War.” An often unsettling study in duty, delusion and denial, Morris’ film is subtitled Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara. In the opening sequence, his subject states matter of factly that, in looking back on his public service, his aim has been to learn, develop lessons and pass them on.
The lessons take the form of bits of wisdom like #2, Rationality will not save us, #4, Maximize efficiency, #5, Proportionality should be a guideline in war, #6, Get the data, #8, Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning and #11, You can’t change human nature. The first, we come to learn though, is the pivotal lesson: Empathize with your enemy.
In recounting events in the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis, McNamara talks about how close the world came to nuclear war. “We lucked out,” he admits with a chuckle. While most of Kennedy’s advisors believed that conflict was unavoidable, one suggested an alternative based on his personal experience with the leader of the Soviet Union. The cabinet member believed that Kruschev would back down if provided with a face-saving claim he could present to the Russian people. Administration officials pointed out that, by removing his missiles, he would save Cuba from obliteration and this was in fact the victory Kruschev in the end declared.
As Morris reveals, the key mistakes in McNamara’s career resulted from his failure to apply the lesson he learned from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the challenges he went on to face in Vietnam. In all the time he grappled with the situation, first under JFK and then under LBJ, McNamara never took the time to inquire as to what his enemy might be thinking. To find out why he was fighting the US. What he was fighting for. What he believed was America’s reason for fighting with him.
The mistake was a fatal one. For nearly 60,000 American soldiers anyway. As the former secretary learned to his astonishment years later when he met with one time North Vietnamese leaders, the whole thing was a big misunderstanding. The United States had feared that the country might ally itself with the Soviets. The North Vietnamese feared the US wanted to put it under colonial rule as the French had. As it turned out, all the North Vietnamese wanted was independence. From both the Soviet Union and America. Oops.
As chilling as his recollection of nuclear near-misses are McNamara’s rationalizations:
“War is so complex it’s impossible to comprehend all the variables.”
“In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.”
“There are no clear definitions…The world hasn’t grappled yet with whether there are rules of war.”
At one point, recalling a protester named Norman Morrison who set fire to himself outside McNamara’s office in 1965, he speculates that the Vietnam era was a stressful time for “sensitive” types like Morrison and then adds quixotically, “I think I was one of those too.”
Morris is up for an Oscar for his latest and the nomination-amazingly, his first-is richly deserved. One would be hard pressed to name another work of non fiction released last year and featuring a comparable degree of intellectual vigor, technical finesse and timeliness. “The Fog of War” simultaneously offers priceless insight into the nation’s past and a worrisome take on the future. “Our allies never supported our actions in Vietnam,” McNamara warns toward the end of the film. “Never go to war unilaterally.”
So much for lessons learned.
Posted on November 1, 2004 in Reviews by Rick Kisonak
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