Fog of War, The

Reviewed By Robert Flaxman
Posted 10/11/04 03:18:15

"A compelling historical text."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Robert McNamara played a pivotal role in American foreign policy for the better part of a decade in the 1960s, and played a role in World War II in the 1940s. As one of the few civilians with involvement in two wars that served to shape consecutive generations of Americans, McNamara has life experiences to relate, and director Errol Morris was interested in recording them - hence the subtitle of this film, "Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara."

Part of the film is given over to backstory, but the most important parts are McNamara's pronouncements on his involvement in World War II and in both the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam two decades later. McNamara discusses World War II, questioning the American use of nuclear weapons when so much of Japan had already been destroyed. In an effective sequence, Morris shows statistics of dozens of Japanese cities that were at least partially burned by American firebombing, and then switches the names to show the dozens of American cities that they could represent, giving the viewer a sense of perspective.

McNamara begins the film by discussing arguably his finest hour, as part of the Executive Committee that staved off nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. As he tells it, everyone involved was incredibly lucky that nuclear war did not come, and says that it did not largely due to the ability to empathize with the enemy, something he says is paramount to war or crisis situations.

Later, he talks about Vietnam, but it is here that things start to get shaky, as McNamara suggests that he was working to get troops out of Vietnam until the Gulf of Tonkin incident convinced President Johnson that US military presence, which he was already in favor of (an about-face from Kennedy's policy), needed to be increased. This is contrary to the belief at the time that Vietnam was "McNamara's War," but it is particularly telling that McNamara never really describes objecting to Johnson, though he did eventually step down from the position of Secretary of Defense.

McNamara is rather tight-lipped about Vietnam, telling Morris in an epilogue that he doesn't feel he can say more on the subject, and despite his apparent stance refuses to come out and say that the United States should not have been in Vietnam. For a man depicted as self-confident, and by the contemporary press as arrogant and almost dictatorial, McNamara seems to have been unwilling to butt heads with his superiors, agreeing with Kennedy but never really expressing his distate to Johnson. If he did - and he may have, given the cloudy circumstances under which he resigned - it's never made clear.

McNamara expresses regret for many of the United States' actions during World War II as regards Japan, which makes his decision not to take much of a stance on Vietnam all the stranger. Perhaps he feels it is still too soon to say anything negative about America's role in that war, regardless of how much he implies that he thinks we should not have been there. The difference between his suggestion that had America lost World War II, he might have been tried as a war criminal, and his meek comment that he didn't remember authorizing the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam is profound.

Though he has some important and powerful things to say, McNamara's evasiveness on the subject of Vietnam lays something of a shroud over the proceedings. Why Morris chose to leave in scenes where McNamara dodges his more provocative questions is interesting - it does not seem to be Morris' attempt to demonize his subject, and yet McNamara ends the film looking rather like a weasel, answering questions with "I don't know" and "I can't say" as though he were a White House press secretary. The sympathetic confessor of our Pacific Theater sins becomes a slippery bureaucrat who is either afraid to take a stand or unwilling to admit what he thinks, neither of which is very appealing.

If nothing else, Morris certainly humanizes McNamara, even as he drags him along a path from saint to sinner. His documentary style is as heavy-handed as ever, offering file footage of war set to a poundingly repetitive Philip Glass score, along with some cartoonishly metaphorical scenes, such as a shot of dominoes falling across a map of southeast Asia. This has come to be excusable as Morris' style, but a first-time viewer would be excused for finding some of these shots as a bit goofy.

The point, however, is not really Morris' style but what McNamara has to say, and what he has to say is usually at least interesting and sometimes downright astonishing. His description of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, where two attacks on US ships (at least one of which almost certainly did not actually happen) helped draw the United States deeper into Vietnam, is one of many moments where the viewer wants to shake their head at the way things can happen in a charged political climate. McNamara wants to caution future generations against the mistakes of their fathers, although he probably could have done more to condemn the fathers in the case of Vietnam. Still, he seems somewhat willing to take at least part of the fall for the mistakes, noble if coming late enough that it's tougher to criticize him or anyone else than it would have been 30 years ago.

In the end, The Fog of War probably leaves more questions than answers, but it certainly entices the viewer to think, which is not something to complain about. McNamara led an interesting life, and Morris allows him to present it, even if it makes the tale a bit one-sided (the scenes at the end may have been included largely as an attempt at balance). Its depiction of United States foreign policy is certainly something to think about in the age of Iraq - McNamara actually comes right out at one point and says that the United States should never enter a war unilaterally.

Robert McNamara seems smart enough not to let us see everything, but what he does reveal can be a compelling account of a life spent in the midst of turmoil.

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