Judge Bill Gibron gives this documentary of Robert McNamara's life a Silver Star.
Robert S. McNamara: a whole new story.
"This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no fooling around."—"Life During Wartime," Talking Heads
The parameters seem simple enough: Freedom vs. Fascism. Democracy vs. Communism. Good vs. Evil. But somewhere buried in each and every battle between sovereign states or out of control, contrasting ideologies are the queer complexities of context; the innumerable variables that lead to confusion and collusion. War, you see, is not fought by infallible entities. We have yet to reach the stage in our development where, science fiction style, we turn over the precepts of who will live and who will die to a digital logarithm. No, it is human beings that rain fire from the sky and split atoms into bombs of unrelenting brutality. Individuals certainly wrap themselves in technology, relying on the latest armament and weaponry to boost their hit points. But when the time comes to make that decision, to look down the barrel or the crosshairs of a firearm and pull the trigger, the final act is a purely individual one.
So ways of coping with such a conscientious conundrum are devised. Patriotism and safety are usually made primary, preempting personal beliefs. Some can rely on the jingoistic mob mentality. Self-defense and express orders also fill in the cracks of concern. But when it comes down to it, war is an expression of mass hysteria, a final determination that the only way to resolve a conflict or protect a policy is to fight over it. And that mentality pervades all aspects of the military machines, from the lowest private to the highest officer.
In The Fog of War, the brilliant, bold Academy Award-winning documentary on the life and times of Robert S. McNamara, ex-Secretary of Defense (under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson) and former president of Ford Motor Company and the World Bank, the truth behind the turmoil is revealed. Hostilities between supposedly rational and intelligent beings are always the result of graduated insanity. Yes, there are times when direct aggression must be met with same. But more times than not, nations and their citizens are pushed to the brink of war (and over into it) because of a mistaken belief, because of a chain of flawed human thoughts that collect and coagulate into a single spear of fatalistic destiny. According to this marvelous movie, war is the result of a glorious con between sense and sensibility, a disregarding of wisdom for the sake of a shadowy, selfish purpose.
Facts of the Case
Born in 1916, Robert Strange McNamara's first clear memory is of people riding the tops of streetcars to celebrate the end of World War I, the "War to End All Wars." By the time McNamara graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and went off to attend—and eventually teach at—Harvard, World War II came calling. After his stint as an officer in the Air Force Statistics office, he and some of his Harvard buddies went to work for Ford. But John F. Kennedy's election in 1960 brought him back to the military, as McNamara became one of the few civilian Secretaries of Defense in U.S. government history. He supervised the Defense Department through the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the initial escalation of involvement in Vietnam. But somewhere right before Kennedy's assassination, McNamara had second thoughts about America's ability to win the war in Southeast Asia. A plan was drawn up to pull out of the conflict. With a new administration (that of Lyndon Johnson) and a reaffirmation of America's devotion to destroying Communism, McNamara grew out of touch with American foreign policy. Since then, he's been formulating his theories about warfare and the concept of justice (and justification) in any armed conflict. His memories and message are the basis for this interview documentary by noted filmmaker Errol Morris, entitled The Fog of War.
For some, The Fog of War will be one mea culpa too many for the aging autocrat known as Robert McNamara. In the early '90s, he stirred controversy and complaints with his open apology for the war in Vietnam, specifically as recounted in his book In Retrospect. Some saw this plea for understanding as nothing more than a publicity stunt, a strange acceptance of responsibility for a horrible rip in history, all for the sake of a shot at the best-sellers list. From trips to Cuba to deconstruct the 1961 missile crisis, to a direct meeting with the enemy equals in the Southeast Asian conflict, McNamara has seemed to be an apologist for the United States, a sorrowful statesman on his last karmic go-round before the grim reaper cancels his planetary pension.
But if you look deeper into The Fog of War, beyond the obvious attempts at sympathy (and there are a couple) and the ample amount of Monday morning quarterbacking (and there is some of that here as well) you will see something far more significant, something that should turn the world on its empirical, colonialist ear. McNamara is speaking to the opposite ends of George Bush Sr.'s New World Order and rallying around the notion of internal housecleaning. For you see, The Fog of War is not an arcane discussion of dogma and policy. It's a real philosophical push by a man who has seen this great nation almost destroy itself—internally and externally—over the notions of security and defense. And he fears we have learned nothing from our past.
Indeed, what makes The Fog of War so creepy and cataclysmic is its uncanny timing. We live, at this writing, in the midst of a war gone horribly awry, a conflict stained by prison abuse scandals and a failing finishing move. Everything that has backfired or battered the American efforts in Iraq is spelled out—point by point—in McNamara's rants, yet he never mentions the conflict by name. How could he? The interviews that make up this film were conducted before the decision to unseat Saddam Hussein. Everything that this one-time Defense Department head dismisses as insane reasoning for unilateral action is in direct contravention of the words and deeds coming out of the White House and the Pentagon in 2004.
And yet there is also much more to this mesmerizing motion picture memoir: insights into issues and events that we, as members of the democratic process, could hardly imagine ever occurring. McNamara pulls back the veil of secrecy to the inner workings of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the President of the United States, showing how leadership mixed with obvious human foibles make for potential powder kegs, in both the political and the power struggle arenas. This was a man who stood on the front lines of some of America's grimmest military moments. And he has a lot to say about the art of war.
Though it's mostly a monologue—a limited Q&A accented with some stock footage and cleverly conceived inserts (statistics, raining down like bombs, over Axis targets during WWII)—what we really get from McNamara is the history of armed conflict, from the United States perspective, over the last 100 years. He begins with Woodrow Wilson's failed dream that a League of Nations would prevent another world war from happening. He then moves us through the obvious achievements of the Second World War, and describes how science and bureaucracy finally became active factors in the success or failure of a sortie or ground campaign. The Cuban Missile Crisis is the last time, according to McNamara, when empathy for the enemy was employed to stopgap an extinction level event (the distance between his fingers, representing the amount of leeway that existed between the USA and nuclear annihilation, was a little much for this 43-year-old to fathom).
After the brush back of the Russians, the other Asian conflict became the corrupter, according to its main architect—the single military event that has set the stage for all other American unilateral action to come. McNamara seems to argue that the United States has never quite gotten over the loss of the Vietnam war, from the external surrender with its lasting image of the last helicopters hovering over Saigon, to the internal struggles with students lying dead on college campuses and generations at each other's throats. McNamara tells us that Vietnam was never completely void or absolutely validated. It was the strict ideological limits of President Johnson and the overall lack of a decent withdrawal strategy that kept us trapped within the chaos for so many years.
The Fog of War shows us the way failure at all levels, from diplomacy to technology, political beliefs and ideological ignorance, leads to irrational acts of virtual self-destruction. It's an oral history through the missteps and failures, egos and idiocy that have pervaded U.S. foreign policy for nearly 60 years. There are a lot of scapegoats in McNamara's realm: misguided military minds like General Curtis LeMay, who, immediately after dodging the nuclear bullet during those 13 days in October 1962, started calling for an invasion of Cuba. LeMay is a chief scoundrel in McNamara's spiel, a man who was more than willing to firebomb Tokyo (and kill 100,000 civilians in the process) without ever once considering the moral consequences. Lyndon Johnson is another member of this ex-Defense Secretary's redolent rogues' gallery. Believing in the conceptually flawed—and in modern-day America, rendered ridiculous—Domino Theory (bolstered in the 1950s and '60s by the Russian overrun of Eastern Europe), LBJ comes to personify the Cold War: a President (perhaps second only to Reagan) who honestly thought the USSR was going to overthrow the world. It's interesting to note how, over the years, McNamara has distanced himself from the fray. Where once he seemed to make an entire second career out of apologizing, we get very few regrets from the man directly. It's as if he finally understood that the best way to make recompense for past arrogance is to finish your "sorrys" and shine a learned light on the future. And The Fog of War is that new manual for man-to-man combat.
McNamara wants his ideas to form the basis for a new philosophy, a companion piece to Carl von Clausewitz's classic On War, Sun Tzu's The Art of War, and Winston Churchill's The Second World War. He hopes to use the lessons he's learned in a life of public service (which the documentary dissects and serves up as 11 thoughtful pronouncements) as the parameters for future foreign policy. McNamara comports to the classical ethical stance contained in the "just war" theory. Like said principle, he discusses the justice of resorting to war in the first place, maintaining justice in light of actually conducting said conflict, and the justice of peace initiatives and the end of battle. McNamara decries the Realists' school of thought (one currently being debated by pundits and political scholars) arguing that there is no absolute sovereign right to act immorally in wartime. Indeed, McNamara seems to be suggesting that, short of defending against or preventing another Hitler—a crazed leader hoping to turn the entire globe into a swastika-draped symbol of his own irrationality—there is no equity in the one-sided use of armed forces. From the dropping of the atomic bomb to the current crisis in Iraq, McNamara's missive is very clear: war is not a solution, but the absolute final act of a desperate and option-less regime. To allow it to be anything else merely strengthens a famous theory in military strategy: if it's at your disposal, you better damn well use it (the cost, apparently, be damned).
The Fog of War is such an important, significant achievement in archeological analysis, a primer for the past policy parameters that shaped much of modern American history, that it's easy to forget what a wonderful, dynamic motion picture it is. Errol Morris has always been one of our best documentarians, able to find the heart inside the hilariously arcane (the pet cemetery owners in his equally brilliant Gates of Heaven) or explain away the obtuse extrapolations of genius (A Brief History of Time's dissection of Stephen Hawking's theories). The Fog of War is a combination of both approaches, a marriage between implied madness and undeniable fact. Via a very effective stylistic approach, McNamara is presented face forward, looking and speaking directly into the camera. Morris's voice is sometimes heard off in the distance, like a voice from the past asking for clarification and confrontation. But Morris is not an "active" part of this program. It's McNamara's diatribe dime and he's getting his entire ten cents worth. This prophet-upon-his-pulpit approach easily removes any veil of distance between the lectern and the audience, turning what could be a graduate-level dissertation on military minutia into an easily understandable (and angering) conversation. Just as he was accused of doing to the press and Congress throughout his tenure as Secretary of Defense, McNamara is here to straighten us out; to lay down the law and take no prisoners; to chew gum, and us, out—and he's all out of Wrigley's. Some may find this mentality (and its presentation in the film) conceit mixed with gall. But with a purpose as pointed as McNamara and The Fog of War have, a little arrogance is allowable.
In essence, you have to remove yourself from the politics of the proposition and postulations, and try to see what McNamara has seen. This is a man who calculated the casualty rate during the genocidal geopolitical paradoxes of World War II. He brought a corporate management style to the Pentagon, trying to introduce accountability to the Military Industrial Complex. He saw the United States and Russia checkmate and double checkmate each other to the point of possible atomic annihilation. McNamara served a President he loved and admired, only to turn around and pick out the fallen leader's gravesite at Arlington when a madman's bullets shot him down. He read between the lines of field reports and saw that Vietnam was an impossible war to win. And when he communicated this catastrophe in the making to his new Commander-in-Chief, he was given two options: get on the "right" side of the issue, or get out. As a result, McNamara has lived in exile for the last 30 years.
Branded as the butcher who sent several thousand young men to their deaths in the rice fields of Southeast Asia, and dismissed by modern thinkers as a self-serving charlatan hoping to salvage his slot in history's Hall of Fame by second-guessing everything ever done in the name of the U.S. military between 1940 and 1970, Robert S. McNamara is a complex and polarizing figure. But there is no denying the fact that the movie fashioned from his theories, memories, and burdens makes for, perhaps, the definitive anti-war statement. Never before have one man's thoughts on his participation in the insanity of war ever sounded so sane…or scary.
That is because The Fog of War is, ultimately, a testament to the power of the spoken word. It shows how ideas can engross and engage in a manner befitting a blockbuster filled with CGI-candy. While there are some elements of visualization—amazing footage of military action in freefall and political powerbrokers in pecking order repositioning—this is really just a film of one man, talking. Morris makes McNamara into an entity of true exposition, trimming away the fat and the fallacy to create a simple, straightforward dissection on the title's central theme. With his subject locked in a sparse letterbox—an almost picture-perfect exemplification of a think tank—the filmmaker trains the camera on old Mac's classic, cracked face, final few strands of hair slicked back in a trademark fashion, and lets the eyes of the audience infer the facets for themselves.
Indeed, McNamara's façade is one of tired tenacity, a wrinkled demonstration of how holding the fate of nations in your hands contorts and deforms your persona. He wears this so-called fog of war along his brow and in the cracks around his eyes. The uncertainty of armed conflict exists in the creases along his mouth and the wattle under his chin. Staring at Robert McNamara is like looking into the visage of Mars, the god of conflict…except this is a different version of that venerable deity. This is a spirit stained by the consequences of his actions and the yoke of responsibility. The old divinity of drive and determination is there, and we can surely see the haughtiness of perceived superiority. But like the mist that clouds your vision or the haze that results from flawed reasoning, there is a shroud over this once-mighty man, a discernable miasma of the melancholy. The Fog of War doesn't only leave victims on the battlefield. Sometimes, the fatalities live a whole other lifetime.
Columbia Tri-Star treats this amazing movie with the kind of respect and reverence it deserves. The transfer is truly spectacular, as evocative and imaginative as Morris envisioned. Presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image, the subtle use of stock footage and archival material mixes beautifully with modern-day shots of McNamara in his quiz-booth setting to create a delicious dichotomy of aesthetic beauty. This is one of the best-looking documentaries ever (and it's mostly just an old man sitting in front of a backdrop), and the presentation is near perfect.
Even better, from perhaps a more artistic temperament, is the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio presentation. Renowned modern classical composer Phillip Glass creates one of his best orchestral scores, a clear comment on the material being presented in the film. Maudlin, magnificent, and very moving at times, this is one of the best cinematic soundtracks ever. The aural aspects of its ambiance are incredible. But this does not mean that the main meat of the movie, McNamara's interview, is left in the sonic sludge. Always clear as a bell, and buttressed flawlessly by the accompaniment, the audio stands right along the video as near-reference quality components.
It's when we get to the bonus material that the packaging falters. Morris is an enigmatic moviemaker, an unknown quantity in the filmmaker personality department. His speech at the recent Oscars gave a world of fans and aficionados a chance to hear him discuss his work, and it would have been nice for Columbia to include a commentary on this disc. The story of how this film came about is fascinating. (Morris originally proposed a one-hour sit-down with McNamara. The filmed-for-PBS Q&A became an eight-hour interview, then a two-day deposition, then several months of discussion sessions with the subject, resulting in a wealth of material that had to be whittled down for this film.) How Morris managed to corral McNamara's ego would make for an equally fascinating narrative. But there is no such feature offered. What we do get is a collection of about 24 additional outtakes and deleted scenes, a chance to see the trims and edits that went into creating some of the film's best sequences. McNamara tries his hand at humor a couple of times in these missing moments, and their effectiveness as comedy instantly indicates why they were cut. But other instances, further discussions about the Kennedy and Johnson White Houses add even more context to the comments in the film, and could have easily been left in. In addition, we get to see the "real" 10 talking points that McNamara had prepared for the initial interview. Along with a brief audio-only introduction from McNamara, these statements of purpose outline the basic principles behind his "just war" theorizing, and may actually be a good place to start for those who find the notion of diving into a deep political debate far too daunting.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Balance is perhaps the one thing missing from The Fog of War, a sense that there was ever a rational reason for some of the decisions McNamara rails against. True, we get to hear the words of the leaders and the Cabinet members who fostered these faulty facets in the U.S. policy, but no one ever challenges the ex-Secretary's sweeping pronouncements. All opponents are heard either via ancient recordings or newsreel footage. Morris does chime in on occasion, trying to turn a rant into something rational, but for the most part, this is McNamara's show and he's going to boat it as much as he possibly can.
Which, of course, leads to a caveat. If you cannot tolerate a metaphysical turncoat—if the concept of an ex-bureaucrat crying for comfort for some of the hard decisions he had to make while in charge—then The Fog of War may not be for you. This is revisionist history at its most hysterical and histrionic. Others may find McNamara's act to be a combination of Chicken Little and chicken shit and dismiss his message outright. If you're not part of his palaver party line, then McNamara has nothing but pity for you. And there's a good chance that, you too, will express remorse at someone giving this attention-grabbing gadfly a forum to foster his guilty conscience. Therefore, your enjoyment of The Fog of War will be in direct correlation to your political bent. If you think the Unites States of America can never do anything wrong, either in times of war or of peace, then maybe you'd be better off watching the Fox News Channel.
There is a classic moment in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, an exchange between a soldier and an officer that sums up, in a rather humorous fashion, the basic quandary at the center of The Fog of War. As the Zulu nation retreats, a wounded British private says:
Better than staying at home, isn't this, sir? Eh? I mean, at home, if you kill someone, they arrest you. Here, they give you a gun and show you what to do, sir. I mean, I killed fifteen of those buggers, sir. Now, at home, they'd hang me! Here, they'll give me a f**king medal, sir!
The morality of combat is, indeed, that vague. Actions taken as accepted on the battlefield result in charges of capital crimes in the peacetime society. Leaders of great foresight or offensive ferocity are condemned as war criminals for their "take no prisoners" attitude. All life-ending conflicts—be they in the name of God, country, or honor—are suspect in the realm of ethos. Life is the supreme moral value, so anything that destroys it is inherently wrong. The fog referred to in the film's title is the shadow realm of excuse. It's the infinite no-man's-land where everything can be rationalized and immune. It's the blind allegiance by foot soldiers to the orders of officers who take their own directives from the strategists sitting high on the hill, away from the fray. It's the ivory-tower thinking of people being paid to produce predictions on potential power shifts while simultaneously analyzing the net benefits and cost effectiveness of certain tactics as they directly coincide with casualty counts.
Cartoonist Gahan Wilson once summed up the futility of fighting with an eerie image. On a bleak battlefield, dark with the stink and smog of death, a lone infantryman, a look of dazed delirium in his eyes, stares at the desolation around him and wonders, "I think I won!" This is Robert McNamara's dilemma exactly. From WWII to the vast ideological Cold War, what did we really win? What have we achieved out of all this chaos and death? The answer seems simple. The fog of war has only gotten denser.
The Fog of War is a monumental achievement in documentary filmmaking and all charges against it are dropped. Errol Morris again proves his talent behind the camera and is also free to go. Columbia TriStar, the lack of a commentary excluded, is also found guiltless in their magnificent presentation of this important and powerful film.
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