THE FOG OF WAR
Review by Ed Nguyen
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
order to do good, you may have to engage in evil."
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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
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.
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
Fog of War is at times disturbing and at times spellbinding in its
revelations, but it represents documentary filmmaking at its finest and most
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Kennedy believed...the primary responsibility of a president is to keep the
nation out of war, if at all possible." - Robert McNamara
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.
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
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!