He has 11 points, but pressures one lesson above all: try to learn. This outstanding demand sets the tone for the well-credentialed documentary “Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.” It presents the 85-year-old McNamara as interviewed by the voice behind the camera — director and producer Errol Morris, of “Thin Blue Line” stature. McNamara ascended from humble beginnings to become the first extra-familial President of Ford Motor Co. He then left the job after five weeks to accept President Kennedy’s bid as secretary of defense.
The music, composed by long-time collaborator Philip Glass, sustains the pulse of information, but it does little to distinguish itself from his other Morris film scores. Both the music and the additional visuals serve to pace the presentation of ideas, rather than make loud claims. The 96-minute “Fog of War,” edited down from 20 hours of interview, bears important fruits for those interested in America’s role in the Cold War — more specifically the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War. McNamara’s insight into the ring of power that determined U.S. defense strategy makes this film much more intriguing than most PTA politics.
The stakes pinned to his story — threat of compound nuclear destruction — summon gut emotions, and the story itself captures all attentive minds. As McNamara says, “if people do not display wisdom, they will clash, like blind moles, and then annihilation will commence.” So pay for your ticket, and pay attention please. Every person who would call him or herself educated should take two hours to bear witness.
“Fog of War” begins with the point, “empathize with your enemy.” A most startling example owes itself to McNamara’s revisiting of U.S.-Vietnamese politics on screen. Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration clutched the Domino Theory to justify the U.S.’s fight for a “free and democratic” Vietnam. The North Vietnamese, however, viewed this conflict with the U.S. as the final battle in a 100-year war for liberation. This scenario seems especially pointed toward American current events. It is well-timed that Morris release this picture right in the froth of the upcoming elections, a time of debate, a time to “reexamine [your] reasoning,” McNamara’s eighth point.
The film’s structure treats each of its 11 segments’ prefacing quotes — including “belief and seeing are both often wrong,” “never say never,” and “you can’t change human nature” — like a tenant, and McNamara like a sage. Does this rig afford its subject too elevated a position? The film remains vague about a judgment: whether to treat McNamara’s musings as political scripture, or to stare down the man whose “rationalization” took hundreds of thousands of American lives, not to mention those of the Vietnamese and Japanese. By the time “Mac the Knife” McNamara stepped down from his duties under Johnson, approximately 25,000 Americans had died in Vietnam, about half of the total body count by the war’s end.
An often-canted angle and slightly shifting frame captures fittingly the image of a man who eludes most prejudices. We could accuse McNamara of much, but condemn him of little. His impulse toward a more efficient war machine — he served as a war planner under General Curtis LeMay in WWII — increased the cost of losing for Japan. Even before the atomic bombs fell over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, U.S. firebombs had extinguished 50 square miles of Tokyo — roughly equal in size to New York City at that time — among 67 other Japanese cities. Though McNamara’s post then placed him among those responsible for such decisions, can we blame a man unable to crunch the innumerable variables of war? He tempers his fourth point, “maximize efficiency,” with his fifth: “proportionality should be a guide in war.” Would the country of the Kamikaze bomber have folded without the pressure applied by America’s atomic bombs? What sort of morality allows for that amount of death in the span of 3 days?
“[General] LeMay said, ‘if we lost the war, we’d all be prosecuted as war criminals.’ He recognized he was being immoral.” At this point Morris allows McNamara’s words to float over his face, silenced either by slow motion or editing. This use of voice-over emphasizes the thought, spoken through McNamara’s eyes. It calls attention to the greatest trick pulled by nations: the winner’s right to write history. It traces a line between self-foolery and self-preservation.
With “Fog of War,” Morris gives history another elegantly quizzical document. Both Morris’ and McNamara’s compassionate fascination with human politics are transmitted to the audience’s side of the screen. The care and craftsmanship given to this documentary transforms the hour and a half into an experience not to be missed.