Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Robert S. McNamara
Director: Errol Morris
Audio: English 5.1 Dolby Digital
Subtitles: French, Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.78:1
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: Trailer, TV spots, McNamara's Ten Lessons, unreleased scenes
Length: 107 minutes
Release Date: May 11, 2004

"In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil."

Film ****

Kennedy.  Johnson.  Nixon.  Each of the U.S. Presidents of the 1960's struggled mightily with the complex sociopolitical quagmire that was the Vietnam War.  Kennedy's solution had been a call for a gradual withdrawal of all American forces from Vietnam.  After his sudden death, Johnson would reverse Kennedy's policy, instead sending ever more American soldiers into the conflict.  Nixon ultimately brought the servicemen home again, but during much of the 1960's, it was not a President but rather a member of the Cabinet who was considered the mastermind behind U.S. policy for the Vietnam War.  That man was Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

Today as then, McNamara remains one of the most controversial U.S. political figures of the twentieth-century.  He has been more reviled than praised, yet there is no denying the importance of his role in influencing policy over a conflict whose impact is still felt today, over three decades after McNamara's departure from the White House.

In 1995, McNamara was approached by Errol Morris to be the subject for the director's new documentary project.  What ensued over the course of the next several years was a series of interviews in which McNamara would expound upon recollections from his early career years to his part in the Cuban Missile Crisis and most significantly to his influential role in Vietnam War policy-making.  Amazingly, even in his eighties, McNamara remained incredibly sharp, the intervening years not having reduced his mental faculties by any significant degree.  From these hours of footage, Morris would assemble the documentary film The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003).

As a filmmaker, Errol Morris is certainly no stranger to the documentary genre.  He has been creating documentaries since the 1970's, and his credits include such works as Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line (about a man wrongfully convicted of murder), A Brief History of Time (with physicist Stephen Hawking), Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (about the infamous execution device designer and holocaust revisionist/denier).  Obviously, Morris has not shied away from confronting sensitive subjects in his documentaries, but he has always exercised great resilience in resisting any tendency towards sensationalism and wild speculations, for which he is generally one of the most well-regarded documentarians today.  His works maintain a consistently high degree of integrity and objectivity, in large part due to the fact that Morris allows his subjects to speak for themselves, rather than imposing his own personal views or opinions upon viewers.

For much of The Fog of War, Morris is content to remain essentially invisible.  We never see him at all, and only on a few extremely rare occasions do we even hear him pose a question.  The focus of the documentary is entirely on Robert McNamara and his views, his historical anecdotes, and his personal insights.  To create a further intimate connection between McNamara and the viewing audience, Morris uses an "Interrotron" device.  During the actual interviews, this system of teleprompters projected Morris's image onto a monitor directly above the camera's lens so that McNamara, in addressing Morris's image, was in essence achieving the illusion of full eye contact with the audience as though he were addressing us personally.

In focusing upon Robert McNamara, Morris brings the spotlight upon a remarkable but controversial man.  The Fog of War uses the McNamara interviews as the foundation for the presentation of footage, both archival and symbolic (such as the "domino effect" of communism overrunning SE Asia), to support or further clarify McNamara's remarks.  The film is divided into eleven chapters, each one entitled after a lesson learned by McNamara through the years.  The Fog of War starts with McNamara's recollections of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Then, it progresses to a review of McNamara's early years in the military during WWII and in his postwar career with the Ford motor company, including a brief five-week stint as president of the car company.  During these early segments, McNamara discusses his possible role in influencing the tragic fire-bombing of Tokyo and countless other Japanese cities during the latter stages of WWII, judging that proportionality should be a guideline in war.  He acknowledges that "if we'd had lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals."  Nevertheless, how does one balance the loss of thousands of Japanese lives against the potential loss of thousands of American lives in a possible invasion of the Japanese mainland?  For better or worse, that is merely one lesson learned during WWII which has been revisited or unlearned in subsequent international war efforts.

After McNamara's unexpected appointment by Kennedy to the office of Secretary of Defense (for which McNamara would resign his brief tenure as president of the Ford company), the Vietnam conflict was arise as a decade-long specter over U.S. foreign policy.  Consequently, the second half of The Fog of War is devoted entirely to this conflict, and it is in this latter half of the film that McNamara addresses many of the challenges of his critics.

Several archival Oval Office audio recordings of discussions between McNamara and Presidents Kennedy and Johnson can be heard throughout The Fog of War.  One early recording clearly reveals that McNamara had recommended to Kennedy a plan to remove all U.S. personnel from Vietnam by 1965.  A subsequent later recording would find then-President Johnson admonishing McNamara for the plan to withdraw.

Dictator.  Fascist.  Imperialist. Warmonger.  Mac the Knife.  The puppeteer behind the Vietnam War.  Such terms and many more have been subsequently applied to Robert S. McNamara.  How then does one separate the controversy of the public figure from the more conscientious nature of the private man?  The Fog of War provides some answers and some insight, but much of it is laid bare before us in McNamara's own words, challenging each individual viewer to come to his or her own conclusion.

Thus is the paradox and complexity of the man and the Cold War environment during which he served his nation.  McNamara survived a Cuban Missile Crisis in which "rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies."  He recognized in the Vietnam War the failing of the basic principle of human conflict, that war was not primarily a military problem but rather a "battle for the hearts and the minds of the people...as a prerequisite to that, we must be able to guarantee their personal security."  Failing that, the American efforts in Vietnam were effectively compromised.

To some degree, McNamara does acknowledge a certain culpability for his role in orchestrating U.S. policy during the Vietnam War.  But McNamara was only one man, and perhaps his parting remarks offer a most penetrating examination of the Asian conflict as a whole:

"We are the strongest nation in the world today.  I do not believe we should ever apply that economic, political, or military power unilaterally.  If we had followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn't have been there.  None of our allies supported us....If we can't persuade nations of comparable values of the merits of our cause, we must re-examine our reasoning."

Was the Vietnam War a civil war, as the North Vietnamese believed, or was it a fight against the spread of communism, as the Johnson administration believed?  Was the Vietnam War a just conflict, full of merit, or was it a misguided political venture?  Today, long after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is difficult for many people to fully appreciate or understand the fear and very real uncertainty that guided many decisions in policy-making during the height of the Cold War.  Hundreds of books and articles have attempted to analyze the dilemma of the Vietnam War without a clear-cut answer.  Perhaps there will never be a consensus over this particular chapter in U.S. history, but at least in The Fog of War, one of the main political architects of the war policy is given an opportunity to share his thoughts and private views, either to repudiate himself or to accept responsibility.

While no single man can possibly encompass the unfathomable complications of the Vietnam conflict, McNamara remains one of its most vital symbolic figures.  The Fog of War is a well-edited and thoroughly engrossing portrait of one of the twentieth century's most controversial political figures.  Despite its subject, the film remains a fair and objective assessment of the former Secretary of Defense, who addresses many of the seminal conflicts of the Cold War, contrasting the public awareness against the horrific behind-the-scene reality.  The Fog of War is at times disturbing and at times spellbinding in its revelations, but it represents documentary filmmaking at its finest and most thought-provoking.

For anyone with even a fleeting interest in our nation's history, do not overlook an opportunity to watch this documentary!  It is a fine companion piece to such fictional films as Thirteen Days or any of the Oliver Stone Vietnam War films.

BONUS TRIVIA:  After leaving the Johnson administration, McNamara served as President of the World Bank until 1981.  In the 1990's, he penned three memoirs, one of which focused upon a recent meeting in Vietnam between McNamara and former leaders of the North Vietnamese regime, men who had once been the very adversaries of the United States.

Video *** 1/2

The Fog of War is presented in a crystal-clear anamorphic widescreen format.  The interview segments look quite good, as do additional dramatization scenes added by Morris.  More blocky and less detailed are archival footage shots or newsreel clips interspersed throughout the film, but this is understandable.

Audio ***

"America wins the wars that she undertakes, make no mistake about it.  And we have declared war on tyranny and aggression." - President Lyndon Johnson, concerning the Vietnam War

Although The Fog of War is presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital, it would have sounded just fine in monophonic, as much of the film centers around the interview clips.  Where the soundtrack shines are the moments when the suspenseful score by Philip Glass is heard.  Glass is a New Age composer whose cyclic scores offer endless variations on a common theme and are instantly recognizable to anyone who has heard his work before.

One interesting aspect of the score is that it is quite evocative of Godfrey Reggio's qatsi film trilogy, particularly during sequences in The Fog of War when time-lapse photography is used.  This should probably not come as a surprise, as Glass also created the memorable musical scores for the qatsi films, too.

Features ** 1/2

"President Kennedy believed...the primary responsibility of a president is to keep the nation out of war, if at all possible." - Robert McNamara

The extras are limited but fairly worthwhile.  Robert McNamara's Ten Lessons is an essay section comprised of thought-provoking quotes by McNamara.  Several of these are lengthy and deal with the U.S. role, perceived or otherwise, in world politics.  These quotes differ from the chapters in the actual documentary, so they are certainly worth reading.

Next, there are the usual promotional ads - one trailer and two TV spots for The Fog of War.  There is also a trailer for the Tim Burton film Big Fish and the acclaimed nature film Winged Migration.

Most significantly, there are approximately 38 minutes of additional scenes.  These can be viewed sequentially or separately.  Some are additional interview segments not included in The Fog of War, while others are extended versions of interview clips present in the documentary.  In all, there are twenty-four scenes over which to peruse!


For consistently high-quality documentary filmmaking, there are only two names to remember - one is Ken Burns, and the other is Errol Morris.  The Fog of War, despite its extremely sensitive subject matter, provides a fair and objective arena for Robert S. McNamara to state his views, popular or not.  Absolutely compelling and never dull, The Fog of War is a superbly-edited, strongly-compelling documentary whose only flaw may be that it leaves audiences wishing for even more.  Highly recommended!