The Fog of War (2003) – Reason has its limits…

the fog of war poster

History was always dull at school. Boring men in brown suits in musty classrooms full of brown books that no-one ever read, droning on about the bloody Nazis. Now I look back at it, I think: how do you fuck up teaching something like World War II? With the right teacher, history could be the most exciting subject ever! When you synopsize WWII, it sounds like the most thrilling blockbuster imaginable, full of massive battles, daring escapes and featuring some of the worst bad guys in history. That stuff should just teach itself!

Now the great and terrible 20th Century recedes into history, and it’s left up to us to assess it  and try not to make the same mistakes. Luckily we have documentaries like The Fog of War to help us understand some of the key events, Errol Morris’ tricky, morally complex portrait of a man whose life was irrevocably entwined with war and death.

The full title of the film is The Fog of War: Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara, and the former US Secretary of Defense gives his lessons direct to camera. Morris uses a device called “Interrotron”, which gives the impression that the speaker is making direct eye contact with the viewer during the film.

McNamara was born during World War I, prematurely declared “The War to end all Wars” by president Woodrow Wilson. During World War II he advised General Curtis LeMay during the bombing of Japanese cities.

McNamara’s Lesson Number Four is “Maximize Efficiency” – his analysis of bombing statistics led to the use of B-29 superfortresses, designed to drop bombs from high altitude, to drop incendiary bombs on dozens of cities from 5000ft. “…in that night, we burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo: men, women and children.”

This sets the theme for the whole film. During his lifetime, McNamara has been declared an evil warmonger, but he was never the person directly making the decisions. More powerful men were acting on his advice. “If we’d lost…we would have been tried as war criminals.” McNamara admits, regarding the devastating carnage wrought upon Japan.

It is said that history is written by the victors, and if that is the case, McNamara’s testimony cannot be trusted. If the 20th Century was the American Century, he was involved in authoring some of its most bloody and dramatic chapters, and one of the failures of the last century was that the Americans continued to behave as victors, even when they started losing. Their record in the conflicts talked about here is won one, drawn one and lost one.

McNamara’s testimony appears candid, but there is always the sense that we are listening to a shrewd political operator of keen intellect. He continuously tries to exonerate himself by admitting someof the blame, but stops short of accepting full responsibility.

After the Second World War, McNamara ended up working for Henry Ford, where his number-crunching abilities gave him the opportunity to save lives – his analysis of car crash stats led to safer cars and the introduction of the seat belt.

His meteoric rise led to Presidency of the Ford Motor Company, then to the White House, when he received a call with an invitation from John F Kennedy.

Fog of war this close

McNamara’s recollection of the Cuban Missile Crisis, where America and Russia pulled back just in time to avert a Nuclear War, is an engrossing opening to the film. “We came this close” McNamara says, and you believe him, because one thing McNamara doesn’t seem capable of is hyperbole.

The largest portion of the running time is devoted to Vietnam. The conflict in Southeast Asia is clearly the subject McNamara feels most guilty, contradictory and defensive about, although tape recordings of conversations between him and Presidents Kennedy and Johnson appear to exonerate him.

On one tape, he is heard recommending the withdrawal of troops to President Kennedy; on another, he is chastised by Johnson for recommending the withdrawal of troops. Confusing and unsubstantiated claims of a North Vietnamese attack on a US Destroyer led to the increase of American military activity in the area. 58,000 American troops died in what was a damaging and demoralising war for the U.S.

“The Fog of War” is a phrase used to describe the decision making process in times of war. On discussing the Cuban Missile Crisis, McNamara regards Kennedy, Khruschev and Castro as reasonable men, but as he says later in the film, “Reason has its limits.”

That one human being has the power to start a nuclear war is frightening, and McNamara declares that the combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy Nations. Once again, you believe him.

This is a powerful and gripping documentary, morally complex and intellectually stimulating. McNamara has been demonised and celebrated, but Good or Evil? Absolutes are rare in humans, but McNamara’s soul is clearly tainted by the deaths of the thousands of people his advice was complicit in.

However, he is also a man with the intellect to realise that not all decisions are good ones in times of conflict – Lesson Number Nine: “In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.” A cynical viewer may hear that and say, “You keep telling yourself that, mate.” – after all, we are talking about a self-confessed war criminal. It is easy to be cynical when you haven’t been forced to make those kinds of choices.

The Fog of War is a challenging documentary about a man who helped shaped some of the key events of the last century. Director Morris skilfully avoids making it just a talking head documentary – while it is essentially almost two hours of an old man talking to the camera, Morris interweaves McNamara’s testimony with a fluid montage of archive footage which alternately support or counterpoint his story.

The film overall has the handsome gloss of a prestigious, multiplex-worthy documentary, enlivened by crisp, judicious editing and Phillip Glass’s evocative yet unobtrusive score.

If Robert McNamara was your history teacher, you’d pay attention.



About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 15/03/2015, in cinema, Documentary, Entertainment, Film, Movies, Reviews, War and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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