Docu-review: McNamara and The Fog of War

Fog of WarThe Fog of War
Errol Morris, USA, 2003
Viewed on DVD, Aug. 12

The first time I ever heard of Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, was when he was depicted in the movie Thirteen Days, which I quite enjoyed at the time. As portrayed by Robert Culp, McNamara  spent most of the film doing everything he could to thwart his generals’ borderline-insubordinate to plunge the country, and the world, into nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Turns out that was a lie, a lie that is repeated several times in this nevertheless fascinating autobiographical documentary. That may sound like a contradiction, but acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris, regardless of the sheer volume of cutting and visual accompaniment that he employs, largely allows McNamara to tell his own story unchallenged in one big “talking head” interview.

I know that McNamara is lying because Fred Kaplan of Slate.com (a often-wrong but usually interesting online news journal) did the public service, in this piece, of comparing McNamara’s statements in The Fog of War to his statements on a very different recording, namely the tapes released before the film came out in 2003. There, McNamara joins the majority of Kennedy’s advisors in calling for Cuba to be bombed, rather than (as Thirteen Days, if not The Fog of War explains) a accepting a “trade” in which missiles in Turkey pointed at the USSR were quietly withdrawn. As we know, Kennedy thankfully ignored those guys.

What’s troubling about this is that Morris actually makes use of these tapes in his film! When McNamara claims that he tried to dissuade Johnson from getting more deeply involved in Vietnam, Morris provides recordings that seem to confirm this (even here, Kaplan provides other quotes that show that the whole story is not being told here either). So why does Morris allow McNamara to lie about the Cuban Missile Crisis? It seems almost like he’s been seduced.

Despite all this, the film is actually a very valuable experience, as long as you read that Slate article either before or after watching it! (Even Kaplan concedes as much). As you may know, McNamara recently passed away, which was my impetus for giving it a watch. I was glad that I did, as this flawed (but perhaps well-meaning, in a way) of a figure defnitely deserves a full airing, and watching this helps you to some extent to understand what went wrong.

This might sound like a boring experience, since it’s basically just one big (heavily edited) interview with the guy, but Morris’ extensive use of archival footage (and even a bit of computer animation) livens up what would otherwise be a visually-deficient experience (although McNamara is more engaging than you might expect). The Fog of War also has easily the best music of any documentary I’ve seen, as Philip Glass has provided an amazingly-varied score, far above what you would expect.

Documentaries are not for everyone, of course and the subject matter might seem a bit narrow in terms of focus; however, McNamara’s life is such that he covers a very large swath of American military history, so really the scope is broader than that of most documentaries. And not all of his patter is self-serving; you might be surprised what he has to say about war crimes in the war against Japan!

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