As insightful a political document as is likely to emerge this year, election or no, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara offers a primer in all sorts of areas, from the hubris of power to the danger of war in a nuclear age to something as seemingly mundane as being man enough to admit when you were wrong.
Beyond being an invaluable tool for budding political scientists, it's an eye-opening piece of history and would be a classic Horatio Alger success story, had Alger concentrated on careers in public service. It's not a bad piece of filmmaking, either.
At its center is the ever-controversial Robert S. McNamara, secretary of defense under presidents Kennedy and Johnson. For a time, he may have been the most-hated man in America: the haughty, high-minded architect of the Vietnam War, the public face of a conflict that tore America apart, the person routinely vilified by anti-war protesters. Even now, with the war decades behind us, his name is enough to provoke heated debate.
Master documentarian Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line) knows a flash point for debate and drama when he interviews one, so he keeps things simple. Three-quarters of the film is simply McNamara talking, staring directly into the camera and offering his take on a life fully lived, from growing up a poor Irish kid in San Francisco to the last days of his tenure as defense secretary (he left LBJ's Cabinet in 1968). But this is no biography, no simple chronological recitation of McNamara's accomplishments.
Instead, Morris distills McNamara's comments during their interviews (Morris can frequently be heard in the background, asking questions or reacting to what's been said), into 11 points relating to the politics or the moral underpinnings of war. In doing so, he turns the interview into a master class on conflict in the nuclear age, taught by a professor who's been there from the beginning.
What emerges is a sobering recitation on the moral quandary posed by modern warfare, a plea for communal understanding - not universal brotherhood (McNamara isn't into those kind of platitudes).
Many will insist that McNamara is the last person who should be lecturing to us on morality and restraint in times of war; the wounds of Vietnam run deep. But the McNamara of The Fog of War is a man who seems to have learned his lessons (10 years ago, he publicly admitted that he had been wrong about Vietnam, and Fog is essentially a plea for the world to learn from his mistake). He comes across as intelligent, reasonable, and, if not exactly forthcoming (he makes it clear when he's said enough about Vietnam, then refuses to go any further), at least self-analytical.
In addition to the interviews, the film uses taped phone conversations between McNamara and LBJ. Listening to them, it's hard to retain the image of McNamara as an inveterate warmonger. In fact, he's heard disagreeing with Johnson over what's going on in Vietnam, and at one point has to listen as the president chides him for once agreeing with Kennedy and urging an eventual pullout of our troops from that country. It seems to have been Johnson who firmly believed in the domino theory with regard to Vietnam; lose that country, and the rest of Southeast Asia falls to the communists. Like the good lieutenant he was, McNamara followed his president's lead and didn't question his policies in public; whether that makes him evil or ineffectual is a topic for discussion elsewhere.
The lessons McNamara imparts aren't drawn exclusively from Vietnam. During World War II, he was on the staff of Gen. Curtis LeMay, and as such was one of the key strategists in the bombing of Tokyo and other cities that preceded the dropping of the atomic bomb. Noting that hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed by those conventional bombings, McNamara wonders aloud at the morality of such a campaign. During war, he says, one must do evil; the question is: How evil is too evil?
There are also lessons drawn from the Cuban Missile Crisis, mostly about understanding one's enemy before the shooting begins. In Cuba, we did, and thus war was averted, he says. We weren't so lucky in Vietnam.
While the film seems largely sympathetic to McNamara, there are also indications Morris isn't entirely buying everything the former defense secretary is selling - while the title could refer to the confusing nature of war itself, it might also refer to how the passing of time can taint one's memories. On occasion, there are hints Morris could just as easily have called his movie The Fog of Memory. Such skepticism is welcome, and doubtless healthy.
Backed by Philip Glass' haunting, dirge-like score, The Fog of War (which could well win the Best Documentary Oscar on Sunday) is a chilling reminder of the precipice the world stands on nowadays, from a man who looked over the edge more than once.
The Fog of War
Directed by Errol Morris
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
Rated PG-13 (images and thematic issues of war and destruction)
Time 95 minutes
Sun Score ****