Fog of War

Errol Morris on Robert McNamara

Movies Reviews Alice Peacock
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Fog of War

For those who lived through the ’60s, the name Robert McNamara provokes an entire range of emotions and experiences. But even those too young to remember the former U.S. Secretary of Defense will find Errol Morris’ amazing new film, The Fog of War, an incredibly relevant portrait of a man who helped shape the 20th century.

The primary thrust of the movie is a series of interviews Morris did with McNamara beginning in May 2001 and continuing through the winter of 2002-03. They used Morris’ famous Interroton device, a movie camera that also allows an interviewee to look at a video monitor featuring Morris. It creates the illusion McNamara is looking directly at the audience.

“The phenomenon of McNamara interests me,” says Morris, “—how he managed the hat trick of being hated by the left, the right, and the center.... At my heart, I’m a contrarian. If people tell me I have to believe x, I’m likely to not believe x. But I’m not a knee-jerk contrarian, I’m a skeptic.” Morris was also interested in McNamara’s central role in many key events of the 20th century: the fire bombing of Tokyo during World War II, the rise of the Ford Motor Co. after the war, the Cuban Missile Crisis and, of course, the Vietnam War. “He embodies the 20th century,” says Morris. “Like Woody Allen’s Zelig, he pops up in the most unexpected places. But unlike Zelig, he doesn’t pop up in some peripheral position at the edge of the photograph. He’s right in the center of the photograph.”

The movie opens with McNamara’s extraordinary reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Unlike the film Thirteen Days—in which the Kennedy administration looks like a well-run, thoughtful group of men struggling but succeeding to make the best of a difficult situation—Robert McNamara makes the whole conflict seem like a roll of the dice. If one mid-level State Dept. official hadn’t been in the room at a certain time, JFK might have heeded the bellicose advice of his generals and bombed Cuba, a move which would’ve certainly provoked an all-out nuclear war. “We lucked out,” McNamara practically shouts into the camera, the implications clear and deeply troubling.

This segment leads to the first of what Morris has dubbed “Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara”—“Empathize with your enemy.” The rest of the movie is structured both chronologically and around the other 10 rules, which include #2 “Rationality Will Not Save Us,” #7 “Belief and Seeing Are Both Often Wrong” and #11 “You Won’t Change Human Nature.” If that sounds too much like a dry history lesson, fear not. It’s rather an exhilarating ride through the realms of foreign policy, psychology, history, and human nature.

Most viewers will come to the movie interested to hear McNamara expound on the Vietnam War, but his reflections on WWII prove even more illuminating. In one of the most riveting interviews seen on film, McNamara recounts how the fire-bombing of Tokyo was designed—with ruthless efficiency. He then describes the subsequent bombing of 66 other Japanese cities, ending with the admission that, if the U.S. had lost the war, he would almost certainly have been tried as a war criminal. It’s an absolutely startling claim, especially given that he’s referring not to Vietnam, but to the “Good War.”

Morris amplifies this section with his customarily helpful archival footage. Rarely seen movies of fire-bombed Japanese cities contrast with McNamara’s trembling mouth and hands. The coup de grace, though, comes through a simple use of text. Morris puts up the name of a Japanese city and lists both how many people were killed and what percentage of the population (often 50-70% of the total population). Then the city’s name dissolves into the equivalent American city: Tokyo becomes New York, Kyoto becomes Washington D.C. The names change, as the death toll mounts. By equating Japanese and American cities, the film strikes home the enormity of the destruction. And as each city is listed, Morris’ editing grows ever faster, creating an indelible momentum that’s unnerving.

Not enough can be said of Morris’ rhythmic editing style. He’s a master of the subtle use of slow- and fast-motion. It’s reminiscent of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, one of Morris’ favorite documentaries. The musical score by Philip Glass is certainly one of the finest of the year. Its propulsive minimalism perfectly matches Morris’ editing, creating both energy and drive. At other times, it heightens what the director calls the “existential dread” of war, as archival footage from WWII and Vietnam flash on screen. When asked in Toronto about his working relationship with Glass, Morris replied, “He sends me something. If I don’t like it, I send it back. And I keep sending it back until I get something I like.” If only all directors did the same.

Many commentators, especially leftists of a certain age, will certainly take issue with the movie, in particular Morris’ handling of McNamara. The Nation has already weighed in on the matter, accusing Morris of being duped. But this misses the point entirely. The film is in no way an apology for either Vietnam or McNamara. As Morris points out, “I feel that I have to remind people, lest they forget, that this is not about whether the Vietnam War was a good war or a bad war. My feelings about the war haven’t changed since I was a student demonstrator at the University of Wisconsin. The war was appalling then. It’s appalling now.” The larger question becomes, what can we learn from the mistakes of the Vietnam War? In this, McNamara proves an able guide.

The film’s current relevance is also startling. When McNamara states authoritatively, “If we can’t convince nations of comparable values of the rightness of our course, we need to re-examine our position,” it’s almost impossible not to think of a contemporary context. And McNamara’s discourse on how group-think overtakes an administration, causing it to see only what reflects its imagined reality, is eerily prescient. “I didn’t want the movie to try too hard to make the connection between then and now. I think it loses something by becoming something directed just to the present,” says Morris. So he took out McNamara’s primary lesson on Vietnam: “One of the lessons of Vietnam is that some conflicts have no military solution.” But it’s no accident that the one shot of President Johnson shows him asserting, “We have declared war on tyranny and aggression” as he talks of escalating the war in Vietnam.

The Fog of War is principally a movie about war, which is why McNamara’s 13-year reign as the president of the World Bank is unfortunately ignored. However, the film raises enough issues, provokes enough questions and challenges enough assumptions to make it essential viewing.