DVD Review of The Fog Of War

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/3/04


  Errol Morris came to fame in the late 1980s with his anti-police corruption documentary The Thin Blue Line, and has spent the last couple decades gracing cinephiles with controversial, yet distinguished, films. Last year’s Oscar-winning documentary The Fog Of War: Eleven Lessons From The Life Of Robert S. McNamara is his best yet, and one of the best films- documentary or not- ever made. It works as a history of the American Military of the last 50 years, and a personal portrait of ex-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, architect of the Vietnam War, not to mention a philosophical foray into the nature of man and evil.

  Yet, delineated as those 3 points are, the film is not dogmatic. McNamara is not portrayed as sympathetic, although sometimes he elicits sympathy- his love and loss felt at the murder of JFK, nor dogmatic, although his actions in the film and out belie that, and led to his being fired by LBJ. Morris takes an effective tack by parsing the film as 11 lessons from McNamara- a very Oriental approach to a life. This is also reflected in the fact that the film rarely answers questions, in the general or specific, rather intent on making its viewers think. Great art usually provokes queries, not smoothes with answers.

  Thus the film’s essence and its title, which refers to the chaotic complexity, therefore unpredictability, inherent in war.

  Things are revealed in the film that were unknown or rarely commented on before- the pros and cons of General Curtis LeMay, the holocaust wreaked upon Japanese cities before the 2 atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. McNamara argues both sides of the argument effectively, and you never know which side he truly believes in. The young pragmatist sought to make the war machine more efficient, yet the older man looks at proportionality. The most effective sequences in the film are the scenes of 67 devastated Japanese cities, their death tolls, and that counterpointed with equivalent American cities. In these scenes, as in the rest of the film, Philip Glass’s score works in concert with the film- as it did in the –Quatsi films of Godfrey Reggio. When good, Glass is very good, when bad- as in the atrocious The Hours- he’s horrid. Perhaps it’s because he needs a good directorial hand to guide him.

  Yet, the film soars to timelessness in its role as philosophic inquiry, asking queries about the ethics of war, how to pursue ethical warfare, if such exists, and the causes of war- is it a bunch of powerbrokers who can end it by fiat, or is it an unpredictable event subject to the flap of a butterfly’s wings? In a sense, the whole thrust of the film is in perfect concert with its subject. McNamara comes off as a man of deep intellect, pathos, conscience, and a scientific bent. Yet, even today, he is utterly clueless as to his actions- especially in Vietnam. He’s a man capable of admitting the Vietnam War was a colossal error, but not really assigning blame to himself, nor his Presidents. Yet, this ambiguity is in line with the film. Imagine this film with Henry Kissinger as its subject. It’s McNamara’s equivocation that lends the film a genuineness and interest that would be absent in a film on the haughty, dogmatic, condescending Kissinger. McNamara allows for subjectivity, for the Fog of War. A Kissinger film might be titled The Hammer Of War.

  Yet, the essence of evil is not so easily defined. Who is more evil- a McNamara or Kissinger? Both have the blood of millions on their hands. McNamara knows this and attempts to wash his hands, while Kissinger joys in it. It’s sort of like asking who is worse- the cool, Mob hitman with dozens of kills, who gets no joy- only pelf- from death, or the serial sex killer whose only pleasure in life derives from sadistic pain and murder? Regardless of his evil or not McNamara is a fascinating character to watch- far more animated, and less guarded, than he was as Secretary of Defense, and his POV on the 20th Century is important to understand, for it was America’s, by and large. Yet, this film does what no mere memoir could- we see the tics and looks from McNamara that no book could do justice to. We hear not only what he says, but see what he means.
  The editing and effects are simply brilliant, along with the aforementioned score. Dread lurks even when McNamara is confidently declaiming- eerily echoing the disasters Vietnam laid out before America, even as we were constantly told how great things were going. McNamara, for all his candor re: World War 2, even admitting he and General LeMay could  have been considered war criminals if the US had lost the war (a cogent point on the victors write history trope), says precious little about his role in Vietnam, claiming to not even recall if he authorized the use of the carcinogenic defoliant Agent Orange. He places all the power with the President- mostly LBJ- in regards to war decisions, even though his purview and job description was to make recommendations to the President. There’s also a bit of Brutus in McNamara- suggesting that JFK would never have let Vietnam spiral out of control like LBJ did, even though he had the power to stop it, and/or just walk away as an act of conscience. A viewer of the film will feel that McNamara is just as reptilian as Kissinger, just a bit more aware or caring of the fact.

  Another point worth noting is the circular nature of history, at times. The interviews with McNamara took place after 9/11, but before the Iraq War. Yet, McNamara’s comments could very well have been made directly on this war. In certain ways all wars are the same. The clips from old newscasts, with steadily rising death tolls, contrasted with government assurances that all is well, are eerily prescient.
  Yet, not all wars are alike in all ways. Let me sift through Morris’s 11 Lessons from McNamara and compare the Vietnam and Iraq wars.
1) Empathize with your enemy- Osama bin Laden is not Ho Chi Minh. The former is a hypocritical, delusional Messiah, while the latter was an impassioned, pragmatic leader.
2) Rationality will not save us- this deals more with the Cuban Missile Crisis than Vietnam, yet is cogent re: Moslem fanatics. The only question we can ask is what drove them to such extreme, and what role did we play?
3) There is something beyond yourself- in an intellectual sense this is no problem, but taken materially you have the basis of religious bogeymen, and their servants like Osama.
4) Maximize efficiency- this is an error from Vietnam repeated in Iraq. Why split the American military in 2 for a fruitless reason in Iraq? Just like asking why we went in piecemeal into Vietnam. War should be an all or none proposition. This is the most pragmatic of the lessons, and the most ignored.
5) Proportionality should be a guideline in war- no WMDs. Obviously not heeded.
6) Get the data- see # 5.
7) Belief and seeing are both often wrong- # 5 redux. This actually appears to be President Bush’s guiding principle in life.
8) Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning- has there been a less cognitive Presidency in history? Iraq is the perfect illustration of the ignorance of this point.
9) In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil- as relates to # 8 this war has been cast in near total black and white, yet is it not evil that 1100+ American lives have been lost for a lie?
10) Never say never- on that score Iraq seems as laden as Vietnam.
11) You can't change human nature- the most pessimistic of the points, but oddly the most optimistic. Both America and Iraq are apt to rebound- the key is to learn from lessons as this.
  This last lesson is also a fulcrum for the film, for McNamara- while Secretary of Defense- was seen as a cold, automatonic, technocrat, while the older McNamara, wizened by age, widowerhood, and reality, is a highly engaging and likable man. The film also allows us empathy by use of declassified secret Presidential Oval Office tapes of McNamara urging LBJ to pull out of Vietnam, only to be ignored, and then chided by the President. As McNamara portrays it he had a Hobson’s Choice- quit and relinquish any chance to diminish LBJ’s blunder, or stay and temper it. Of course, to us it seems no such conflict existed, but we are not McNamara, and this not 40 years ago, during the height of the Cold War. And whatever flaws the man has he is not a man without conscience- he even brags about his role in introducing seatbelts to save lives when he ran the Ford Motor Company, and in the DVD deleted scenes about his wife’s founding the organization Reading Is Fundamental.

  Other DVD deleted scenes include nearly 40 minutes of tall tales, war stories, and some of McNamara’s work with the World Bank where he takes justifiable pride in its finances helping to wipe out certain diseases and ills, yet ironically such good deeds never get press. Also included are trailers, tv spots, and a different set of 10 life lessons from McNamara that he claims are his own, not the film’s. This film has got to be the shortest 105 minutes in film history for, if the deleted scenes (culled from over 20 hours of interviews) are any clue this film should more properly have been a PBS miniseries. There are probably only a literal dozen or so films that will have relevance and cogence in 1000 years. This is one of them. Watch it. Understand it. Absorb it. If you don’t you are likely to be as regretful as its prime subject.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 11/04 Hackwriters website.]

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