Errol Morris Delivers a Nearly Flawless Lesson in History We Seem Doomed to Repeat
Although best known as the U.S. secretary of defense who oversaw the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara's career also doubles well as a one-man view on the bloody 20th-century collision between U.S. foreign policy, technology, and ideology. So it's to art-house documentarian Errol Morris' credit that the McNamara revealed in The Fog of War is more than the calculating ex-IBM man-machine of mass liquidation his detractors have claimed him to be. The question of just what he is propels the viewer through this pretty much flawless and unnervingly timely film.
Morris (The Thin Blue Line, Mr. Death) spent 20 hours interviewing McNamara, then 85 years old but laser articulate and full of piss and vinegar. With his lantern jaw and Brylcreemed sweepback, he suggests a separated-at-birth Donald Rumsfeld. Throw in his vivid recollections of an over-his-head Texas president (Lyndon B. Johnson), a unilateral war based on made-up intelligence (Vietnam), and flawed ideology (the Communist-hysterical "domino theory"), and you wonder if anyone in Washington reads history books. Then there's the film's subtitle, Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara, a conceit that allows the director to highlight pearls notable for how much the current administration seems to ignore them: "Empathize with your enemy," "Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning," and "Get the data" among them. Morris intricately interlaces interview footage into clean-lined graphics and processed period footage, lending accent and artfully blunt context to the mess of history McNamara affected, all propelled by Philip Glass's arpeggio anxiety-disorder score.
During World War II, McNamara worked in the Air Force's statistical wing. His number crunching increased bomber mission efficiency and led to the firebombing of Tokyo and the incineration of 100,000 Japanese civilians. A skilled slippery fish when it comes to issues of accountability and complicity, McNamara partially blames the grotesque overbombing on Gen. Curtis LeMay. But then he drops one of the film's stunners--had the Allies lost the war, he asserts, both he and LeMay rightly would have been tried as war criminals.
In deft animated asides, Morris shows how McNamara's pioneering use of numbing integers and official-speak made modern warfare/mass slaughter an acceptable sell. Graphics of sleek bombs--each bearing the number of people it will kill--fall on a map of Japan. The names of incinerated Japanese cities lose their anonymity as the names of comparably large U.S. cities flash below them. The camera pans across documents as select words glow--"clean," "ideology," "efficiency"--and then cuts to reality--color-drained shots of children butchered by such imprecise mass violence. Morris respects his audience's ability to connect the dots from the WWII firebombing to the U.S. napalming of Vietnam and its use of toxic defoliant Agent Orange there (McNamara claims not to recall ordering it) on up to "shock and awe."
McNamara seems relieved to boast about his post-WWII life as an exec at the Ford Motor Co., where he was pivotal in the introduction of seat belts. (The way he puts it, his recurring attraction to public service isn't a God-told-me-to thing, but an addiction to the buzz of being in the thick of it.)
At the behest of President John F. Kennedy, he became secretary of defense. Regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis, McNamara repeatedly asserts that the administration's ability to empathize with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's fears is what stopped the world from going over the nuclear brink. After Kennedy was assassinated, McNamara inherited Vietnam, which he describes as textbook unilateralism, to be avoided no matter what. "If we can't persuade nations of comparable values of the rightness of our cause," he stresses, "then we'd better re-examine our reasoning." (Fog was shot pre-Iraq invasion.)
But he can also be cagey. McNamara sidesteps the biggest personal question--whether consenting to doing this film is a way of gaining some sort of redemption, of simply setting the record straight, or gilding his own legacy.
He claims that he could have done more to end the Vietnam War. (Why didn't he?) More tellingly, he seems genuinely moved as he recalls a Baltimore Quaker, Norman Morrison, who immolated himself below McNamara's office window at the Pentagon in 1965, and a recollection of a visit to JFK's grave brings him to tears. Though regretful, he stops short of apologizing for a war that consumed more than 58,000 American lives.
At one point, Morris outright asks him if he feels guilt; McNamara says he doesn't want to be "controversial" by answering. In the silence that follows, you can see the ex-secretary of defense tumble to the obscene absurdity of his diversion.
McNamara was interviewed via a Morris-invented device called the Interrotron that allows the director and his subject to look into each other's eyes while the subject also looks directly into the camera lens; the resulting interview sequences are unsettlingly intimate. Sometimes McNamara just stares into the lens as though daring us to judge him. In The Fog of War, the passing of individuals deeply affects him; the death of massed others remains an abstraction. One gets the sense that compartmentalizing past atrocities is part of how he keeps sane. Or maybe it's something else entirely.