The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

"Excellent"

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara Review


Has documentary filmmaker Errol Morris met his match? Usually, this insightful director offers subjects who express their passionate commitment towards whatever they do (pet cemetery owners, Holocaust deniers) and get themselves caught in Morris's philosophical traps. His expression of an absurd worldview is directly paralleled by what his subjects have to offer. How odd, then, that Morris finds a slippery, often non-committal subject in Robert S. McNamara, a hard-edged intellectual and a politician. The Fog of War has a central figure who himself is shrouded in a fog of mystery -- and the "truth" becomes harder to decipher or even intuit.

McNamara presents a series of thoughts about modern society, particularly involving war. He offers 11 slogans of wisdom, each forming a separate chapter in Morris's documentary (i.e., "Empathize with your enemy" or "Never say never"). From these simple maxims, Morris weaves a tapestry that involved McNamara's terms as Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson, as a strategist during the firebombing of Japan during WWII (presented as a frightening assault that America has brushed under the "good war" carpet), and as one of the leading and perhaps guiltiest specters of the Vietnam War.

Accompanied by the "existential dread" of Philip Glass's minimalist score, The Fog of War feels like a horror story with a mousy little bureaucrat at the center -- shrieking into Morris's camera that the reason we survived the Cuban Missile Crisis was pure luck (despite the efforts of a few good men) and that it's man's nature to cause war. There's a sense of inevitable danger that pervades McNamara's statements, even as he comes off as a charming and charismatic figure. And, worse than his fear-building, is the sense that McNamara won't reveal everything he knows, or come clean about his own bloody hands.

The Fog of War is at its weakest when it's presenting a Robert McNamara history lesson, recounting moments from our American past like a textbook entry. We expect more from Errol Morris, and yet McNamara occasionally seems to give him so little to work with (maintaining a solid poker face and breezy sarcastic manner throughout) you can see how they might have been at a loss in the cutting room. There's the occasional thematic attempt of slicing up McNamara's speeches with jump cuts, reducing his philosophizing to freaky (and purposeful) sound bites. It's Morris scrambling for devices, and not all of them work.

But it's at the conclusion that The Fog of War earns its place in Morris's canon. After rehashing McNamara's life and his dubious work, Morris asks him a few careful and important questions that the clever politician refuses to answer. Filmed in a hazy slow motion shot as he walks through empty streets, McNamara is seen as a ghost of our past and a harbinger of future crises. That he won't speak about his actions of the past is more chilling than all his other talk -- since we're doomed to repeat the past unless we learn from it, and McNamara is unyielding in keeping his own cold, hard counsel. "The human mind cannot comprehend all the variables," McNamara says, and neither can The Fog of War, which is this film's blessing and its curse.

Fear my skin.



The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

Facts and Figures

Run time: 95 mins

In Theaters: Wednesday 14th January 2004

Box Office USA: $4.1M

Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics

Production compaines: SenArt Films, Radical Media

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 98%
Fresh: 135 Rotten: 3

IMDB: 8.2 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director:

Starring: Robert McNamara as Himself, as Himself

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