This review is long overdue. Errol Morris' documentary "The Fog of War" is not only a brilliant piece of filmmaking; it's also a frank discussion about the ethical and moral landscape of the 20th century as it pertained to war.
Robert McNamara, from 'The Fog of War.' (Sony Pictures)
Robert S. McNamara, secretary of defense from 1960 to 1967 under Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, speaks with energy and insight about his role as a key international player in the middle of the 20th century. He doesn't seem like an 85-year-old man.
McNamara says up front he's ready to examine his actions again and derive some conclusions—or as he also says, "Develop the lessons and pass them on."
He starts by pointing out that there's no learning period with nuclear weapons. And the documentary spends much of the time discussing—essentially through McNamara's dramatic retellings of close calls like the Cuban Missile Crisis—what nuclear weapons did to the 20th century.
I wasn't alive for most of the Vietnam War, so my knowledge of it comes from history books, others' recollections, and documentaries like this. Keeping in mind that "Fog" presents only McNamara's view, it's just fascinating.
Morris uses lots of archival footage: of presidents, of war, of McNamara himself. He also includes newly released taped conversations that McNamara had with Kennedy and Johnson. Philip Glass' music that underscores the piece is more than chilling; it's the very sound of ethical doubt in a high-stakes game.
Morris' editing approach uses jump-cuts and black screens to astonishing efficacy. Morris himself never appears; one merely hears his voice occasionally ask McNamara questions. This, too, was a clever artistic decision.
Morris' most important decision, perhaps, was the use of a device called the Interrotron. It essentially allowed Morris' face to be superimposed over the camera lens (like a TelePrompTer), allowing McNamara to talk directly to the camera while feeling like he was addressing a person. The result gives McNamara's comments an immediacy they would otherwise lack.
The film is organized, as the subtitle says, around 11 lessons from McNamara's life. They include: "Empathize with your enemy" and "There's something beyond one's self." Taken as a whole, they seem to emphasize the fact that humans are often wrong, and to behave as if it were otherwise is not only wrongfully prideful but massively destructive in a nuclear age.
McNamara demonstrates his second lesson—"Rationality will not save us"—by saying that even rational people like John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev went to the brink of nuclear war.
McNamara also talks at length about Gen. Curtis Lemay, whom McNamara paints as a wizard strategist for American military airpower whose actions, in tandem with McNamara's own, resulted in enormous loss of life, particularly during the firebombing of nearly 70 Japanese cities prior to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
McNamara recalled Lemay saying that if the United States lost the war, he and McNamara would be prosecuted as war criminals, for what they had done could be construed as immoral.
"But what makes it immoral if you lose," McNamara reflects in the film, "and not immoral if you win?"
McNamara's voice only occasionally cracks—as when he recalls picking out the spot in Arlington Cemetery where Kennedy should be buried.
Some will feel compelled to apply the film to the current situation in Iraq. They will find the most obvious fodder in McNamara's statement that the United States should never apply its economic and military power unilaterally.
He goes on to say that if the United States can't persuade like nations of the merits of its case, then the country should heed lesson No. 8: "Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning."
But to reduce the film to a pointer at Iraq would be misguided and wrong. It's an illuminating conversation with a controversial and pivotal figure in American life.
The DVD includes 24 additional scenes, the most engaging of which cover the "first strike" approach and McNamara's love for the biblical story of Job.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for images and thematic issues of war and destruction. Reviewer's note: Morris exercises relative restraint in showing images of war.
Director: Errol Morris
Cast: Robert S. McNamara
The movie's official Web site is here.
An excellent teacher's guide is also available that provides some historical context for events discussed in the film.
The DVD/VHS is available now from Amazon.com.