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Films worth revisiting: The Fog of War

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara
Directed by Errol Morris; Starring Robert McNamara as himself

Reviewed by Joshua Zapf

This 2003 Sony Pictures Classic opens with some black and white footage of former United States Secretary of State Robert McNamara preparing for a press conference.  It then shows a wartime montage played back to sweeping strings and stressed flutes. From that point onward, the film’s tension  never abates. Fog of War is an interview with McNamara, President of the Ford Motor Company and former President of the World Bank. It is a history lesson that does not sidle around difficult issues and involves a man who, with determination, lived an amazing life burdened with decisions that, right or wrong, caused his vilification.

“Any military commander who is honest with himself will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power. He’s killed people unnecessarily–his own troops or other troops–through mistakes, through errors of judgment. A hundred, or thousands, or tens of thousands, maybe even a hundred thousand. But, he hasn’t destroyed nations. And the conventional wisdom is ‘don’t make the same mistake twice, learn from your mistakes.’ And we all do. Maybe we make the same mistake three times, but hopefully not four or five. They’ll be no learning period with nuclear weapons. You make one mistake and you’re going to destroy nations.” –Robert McNamara

Fog of War viewers follow eleven lessons from McNamara which range from “Empathize with your enemy” to “Maximize efficiency” to “You can’t change human nature.” Viewers step into the war room and hear the conversations of John F. Kennedy and McNamara during the Cuban missile crisis. Viewers become privy to the startling facts of how close mutual destruction came to the nations of Earth.

Director Errol Morris shifts focus to McNamara’s early life and the initiation of the Second World War. From there we witness a whole new side to the Pacific Theatre. Bravery is bested by statistics: tackling fuel efficiency so that more sorties could be run overtop of Japan, the mathematics behind using firebombs that burned Tokyo to the ground. For those who knew only the nuclear attacks on Japan, to see the loss of life based solely on firebombing is startling, gut wrenching and physically chilling.

At times the montages of fire, bullets, personnel, and explosions that overlay McNamara’s narration feel heavy handed. They make his voice seem unwavering in the face of deciding the fate of others.  Yet, that is the basis of this film. To see the face and logic of someone rationalizing the decisions of war–where the freedom of some outweigh the deaths of others. What makes Fog of War so compelling is McNamara’s penchant to look inwards, without guidance from Morris, to ask himself the most difficult moral questions. Such honesty coupled with humanity is what should beat in the heart of leaders, and here we see a man who doesn’t shirk from responsibility–knowing his job would leave him a monster.

The movie visits McNamara’s time with Ford and the introduction of the seatbelt–McNamara figured he could save upwards of twenty thousand lives. Morris then begins to shift the focus towards the Vietnam War, but stops in at John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Whenever Robert McNamara’s confident voice cracks from pressure, falters in lieu of teary confession, when Philip Glass’ soaring original score lifts McNamara’s voice so that we can feel it more than hear it, Fog of War is at its best. It educates, empathizes, critiques. A more touching and fear-rousing documentary may not exist.

Joshua Zapf loves rediscovering movies from the past.