McNamara’s complexities are revealed in ‘Fog of War’

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Times Staff Writer

“We like to think of the world in terms of good and evil, it makes it more tractable,” Errol Morris said when his remarkable new documentary, “The Fog of War,” debuted at Cannes in May. “Otherwise it’s far more difficult to deal with -- and it’s problematic as it is.”

Never one to shy away from challenges, Morris has come up with one of the best documentaries of this or any year. Part filmed biography of the eternally controversial Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, part colloquy about such philosophical questions as what’s morally appropriate in a wartime environment, “The Fog of War” insists there are no easy answers about people and that reality is more complex and more provocative than we’d like to believe.

In a society that prefers to think that only bad people do bad things, it’s tricky to present McNamara as an apparently decent man who epitomized “the best and the brightest” of the John F. Kennedy era, a man who cared about moral values and responsibility to society. Showing how someone like this ended up running a merciless bombing campaign that killed 2 million Vietnamese for what increasingly look like indefensible reasons is too internally contradictory for people to deal with.


But to veteran documentarian Morris (“The Thin Blue Line,” “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control”) this conundrum is exactly the point. It fascinates him, and his film, that you don’t have to be Saddam Hussein to do damage in the world, that you can end up responsible for dark and dangerous things without feeling as if you’re wearing a black hat.

More than that, to allow McNamara to have second thoughts, to show him now terrified of atomic warfare (“there’s no learning period with nuclear weapons, one mistake is going to destroy nations”) is not letting a self-justifying scoundrel off the hook but giving society a chance to profit from the example of how the best intentions can go horrifyingly wrong.

If the world cannot learn from the trajectory of McNamara’s life, if, to quote his Cuban missile crisis antagonist Nikita Khrushchev, “we do not display wisdom, we are going to clash like blind moles and then mutual annihilation will commence.”

Not that either McNamara or this film offer anything like a formal recantation. “The Fog of War” is more in the nature of an attempt, in its subject’s words, “to try to learn, to understand what happened, to develop lessons and pass them on.” These are lessons not just from Vietnam -- which takes up just 40 minutes of a 106-minute film -- but from a lifetime of 87 years.

Morris early on decided to interview only McNamara for this film, and the former secretary spent 23 hours facing the director’s Interrotron, a machine that makes subjects seem to be looking directly into the camera. Articulate, confident, forceful and compelling, McNamara is not one to be at a loss for words.

The danger of that decision, the director himself admitted in Cannes, is, “ ‘How does that become impartial?’ The answer is, it doesn’t -- it doesn’t even have the pretense. What it does is take you inside someone’s head. It’s part dream, part history, part self-analysis, part self-justification, part mystery.”


Always a meticulous craftsman, Morris has placed this material in an exquisite setting, starting with a disquieting score by frequent collaborator Philip Glass, a master of what the director aptly describes as “existential dread.”

Morris also has a peerless feeling for actuality footage culled from dozens of archives, not only selecting material that hasn’t been seen before but making choices with a more aesthetic eye than is usual for documentarians. And the objects he had co-director of photography Peter Donahue shoot specifically for the film, whether it be a lavishly presented blue Cadillac or the most elegant dominoes falling on a map of Southeast Asia, are beautifully rendered.

“The Fog of War” is divided into 11 segments, each one nominally corresponding to a lesson McNamara learned during his lifetime, an organizational system that enables the film to have a more fluid structure than a straight-ahead biography would allow.

Perhaps most surprising is the segment that deals, at its subject’s insistence, with McNamara’s involvement in the firebombing of 67 Japanese cities near the close of World War II, a series of military actions that killed nearly 1 million civilians. McNamara reveals that his superior, Gen. Curtis LeMay, told him, “if we lost the war, we’d all be prosecuted as war criminals.” What, he asks in one of the film’s most provocative moments, “makes it immoral if you lose, not if you win?”

“Fog of War’s” most compelling section is its opening segment on the Cuban missile crisis because of how close the world came to outright nuclear war. In the end, McNamara says, “we lucked out in Cuba,” largely because the president listened to a former ambassador to Moscow named Tommy Thompson who had a keen understanding of Khrushchev’s thinking. That’s why the film’s lesson No. 1 is “empathize with your enemy.”

But it is, finally, the sections on the Vietnam War, a period when McNamara was one of the most reviled men in America, that seem to have the most relevance for today. It’s chilling to hear, especially in the light of the talk of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that the American government escalated the war in Vietnam and got Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin resolution because of a putative second attack by North Vietnam that we now know never happened. That’s why that section is called “belief and seeing are both wrong.”


In the end, it is the way that Robert McNamara doesn’t add up, how he remains a quixotic, contradictory, almost inexplicable individual, someone who believes “in order to do good, you may have to engage in evil,” that makes “The Fog of War” such a strong piece of work. We hear McNamara, on newly released White House tapes, advising President Kennedy to get out of Vietnam, then we see him in archival footage energetically directing the war under Lyndon B. Johnson. We see him declaring he is a sensitive person yet refusing, in the film’s epilogue, to admit feeling guilty. Never have the oft-quoted words of Walt Kelly’s Pogo -- “We have met the enemy and he is us” -- seemed more appropriate and to the point.


‘The Fog of War’

MPAA rating: PG-13 for images and thematic issues of war and destruction.

Times guidelines: Adult subject matter.

Sony Pictures Classics presents a @Radical.Media & Senart Films production, in association with the Globe Department Store, released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Errol Morris. Producers Errol Morris, Michael Williams, Julie Ahlberg. Executive producers Jon Kamen, Jack Lechner, Frank Scherma, Robert May, John Sloss. Cinematographers Peter Donahue, Robert Chappell. Editors Karen Schmeer, Doug Abel, Chyld King. Music Philip Glass. Production designers Ted Bafaloukos, Steve Hardy. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.

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