The Fog of War (2003) dir. Errol Morris
Starring: Robert McNamara
“The Fog of War” is a single-subject documentary about Robert McNamara, the so-called architect of the Vietnam War. It’s a fascinating film about his years of service from WWII to his time as Kennedy and Johnson’s Secretary of Defence. It’s a deconstruction of war from the point of view of an aged insider looking back on his influence on the world. And even though the film looks into the past, it’s highly relevant today.
Director Errol Morris separates the discussion into 11 chapters, subtitled: “Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. He starts things off with the Cuban Missile Crisis and describes the events as they happened from within the oval office. We’re privy to never-before-heard snippets of taped conversation between Kennedy and McNamara. The first lesson to be applied to the crisis is “Empathize with Your Enemy.” It’s a remarkably simple conclusion but often forgotten in political, military or economical tactics. McNamara refused to think of the Soviets or the Cubans as “evil-doers” and instead put himself in their shoes to empathize with Khrushchev and Castro’s needs and desires. McNamara admits we all came within a hair’s breadth of nuclear war, but the U.S. came out victorious because of his and Kennedy’s tactics.
McNamara then circles back to discuss his involvement in WWII, which is even more fascinating. McNamara has always been the smartest guy in the room.
With his Berkeley and Harvard degrees under his belt, as a soldier, instead of going to the frontlines, the Air Force put him to work in the Statistical Control Office. There he was instrumental in analyzing the effectiveness of the bombing campaigns in the Pacific as well planning the cruel firebombings of 1945. The reduction of soldier’s lives to numbers, percentages and kill ratios is alarming, but also makes sense in the context of the needs of combat. McNamara is candid in saying, if the U.S. lost the War he and his superiors would have been tried as war criminals.
McNamara’s involvement in Vietnam is the heart of the film and the reason his name remains so controversial today. Morris clarifies the misconception of McNamara as the ‘architect’ of the war. McNamara clearly lays blame on LBJ, whom we hear from the horse’s mouth contradicting his advice to pull out of Vietnam. The rest is history.
McNamara’s insights are so important today that he could easily substitute Vietnam for Iraq and the film would be just as accurate. His description of the error in attributing the Gulf of Tonkin affair to the North Vietnamese, which ultimately caused Johnson to escalate the war is eerily similar to Bush’s miscalculation of Iraq’s phantom WMDs.
“The Fog of War” isn’t just about the Cold War, it’s also about the man himself. McNamara is fascinating because he seemingly found himself in positions of power by request, as opposed to desire. He had no intention to be placed in the Statistical Control department of the Air Force, and he had no desire to leave his position as Head of the Ford Motor Company until President Kennedy called and asked him to be his Secretary of Defense. He’s been courted by his employers because he’s a superior man who can apply he pure intellect into any situation. Kind of like the current trend of hiring super-smart MBA grads to head baseball franchises despite no experience in the sport whatsoever.
Errol Morris again opens his magnificent bag of tricks to visualize the story. As with all his films McNamara speaks right to camera and appears to communicate with us personally, one-on-one. It’s highly effective and persuasive; his stock footage and slo-mo artistic recreations are simple yet effective renderings of the complex themes; and Philip Glass’s music always sounds best with Morris’ films and this is no exception.
A frustrating aspect of the film is that Morris never fully breaks down the wall of protection put up by McNamara. We never really get to ‘know’ the man. McNamara’s quick to tell us about what went on behind the political doors, but when it comes to his family and his own moral convictions, he is elusive specifically when it comes to accepting blame. Even with his age, the benefit of hindsight and his illustrious stature in the world, he’s still the smartest guy in the room and won’t let you forget it. Enjoy.
Buy it here: The Fog of War