FOG OF WAR, THE (Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, The)

(director/writer: Errol Morris; cinematographers: Peter Donahue/Robert Chappell; editors: Karen Schmeer/Doug Abel/Chyld King; music: Philip Glass; cast: Robert S. McNamara; Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Errol Morris/Michael Williams/Julie Ahlberg; Sony Pictures Classics; 2003)

“Admittedly this was a fascinating watch despite my reservations about the interview.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (“The Thin Blue Line”) directs The Fog of War, an Academy Award winner for Best Documentary. It chronicles the American success story of the former Secretary of Defense who served under both the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, Robert Strange McMamara. He was a controversial and influential figure on the world stage–a major player in America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, where under his watch about 25,000 American soldiers lost their lives. The now 85-year-old Irishman rose from humble beginnings to study philosophy at Berkley (Morris also studied philosophy at Berkley) and then Harvard grad school. From there he joined the Air Force during WW11, serving under the command of the belligerent and terse Colonel Curtis LeMay (later becoming top general of the Air Force) and was part of the team that dropped firebombs on numerous Japanese cities, killing hordes of civilians. In Tokyo alone, more than 100,000 civilians died in March of 1945 just prior to Hiroshima–an act that would make the team war criminals if they lost the war. At the war’s end he joined the Ford Motor Company where he initiated the use of seat belts and was briefly the company’s president before being plucked by President Kennedy for the esteemed cabinet post despite his lack of political experience. He subsequently served as president of the World Bank from 1968 to 1981, and when he retired confined himself to charity work and writing his 1995 memoir ”In Retrospect.”

The film is divided into ”Eleven Lessons of Robert S. McNamara,” as the imperious, steely-eyed wearer of rimless glasses, slick haired, arrogant, and still feisty corporate figure takes control of the interview and answers only the questions he wants to and tells us nothing new about that unfortunate war that we didn’t already know. I certainly don’t feel I needed eleven such lessons from someone like him, especially since I was one of the war protesters and considered McMamara someone who was so puffed up with his sense of self-righteousness, efficiency, and rationality yet was entirely wrong about everything he stood for. I don’t need this monstrous figure lecturing me about the mistakes of the war that he was too arrogant to respond to at a time when it really mattered. The lessons are his alone to learn, which I doubt he really grasps even at this late date. When asked about his war guilt he still cannot respond that he shares any guilt about Vietnam, as he slyly avoids answering that question. In any case, it is now too late and easy to have such hindsight about an obviously bad war, and I doubt if it does any good to revisit those days since it comes way too late to take away from all the divisiveness and enmity caused by McMamara’s part in the war machine. It’s a war he got completely wrong and still doesn’t have the courage to take a chunk of the blame he deserves. Instead he tries to rewrite history and refuses to say anything new to shed more light on his nefarious activities or explain why if he resigned or was fired under LBJ because of differences about the war he remained silent and never spoke the truth in public in the ensuing days when it mattered, as about 58,000 troops ended up being killed. He never takes his full share of the blame for anything about the war including being held accountable for the decision to use Agent Orange (his memory suddenly goes blank if he gave such orders), as he instead blames LBJ or the general thinking of the time that the war was fought over that absurd “Domino Theory” (the filmmaker resorts to cutting in on the interview to repeatedly show dominoes falling on a map). It was the cabinet braintrusts’ ignorant belief that Vietnam was a cold war problem and not a civil war, and therefore they never understood the enemies rational for fighting.

Yet for all his efforts to humanize himself of his bloody stench he still comes across as a duplicitous and cunning character, just as I perceived him when he was Secretary of Defense.

Somehow the intended purpose of this interview, taken from some 20 hours of interviews given about a year before the Iraq War, from Morris’ point of view, is to show us that McMamara and Rumsfeld are similar arrogant types and that the same mistakes are now being made by the current Bush Republican administration (the dictum of history repeating itself). This documentary plays on being relevant to the times. The filmmaker sees America going down the same rabbit hole in Iraq as it went down in Vietnam, and hopes to show that America can’t go it alone in the world to fight unilateral wars. I think if you didn’t know that before this film, then you probably still wouldn’t know it after the film–there was just no learning arc in this one-sided interview. This is no fault of Morris, he tries to draw out an unresponsive McMamara. But the old warrior is too crafty and always seems to be in complete charge of this interview, and only lets us in on his narrow take on things by never saying more than what he has to–as in the end he leaves us with his misplaced pessimism “You can’t change human nature.” I guess that is meant to explain his catastrophic blunders as merely human error.

Admittedly this was a fascinating watch despite my reservations about the interview. There’s an original New Age meditative score by Philip Glass (which I found to be a distraction from what was on the screen, rather than an inspiring thoughtful piece). But I found Morris’ other inserts interesting as well as informative, as there were previously unheard of White House tapes of conversations about the war between McNamara and both presidents, along with vintage footage from the the Cuban Missile Crisis, the 1945 bombing of Tokyo and the Vietnam War, and recreations from the events of the time.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”