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The Fog of War (A Movie Review)

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

The Fog of War

The Fog of War


Featuring Robert McNamara.

Directed by Errol Morris.

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.  106 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

Some people are born for greatness.  Some have it thrust upon them.  Some people just stumble into it.  Looking back over his life, Robert McNamara never seems to have planned or expected to play a major role in the life and death of millions of people.  He just happened to be the person at the right place at the right time.

This is not to underestimate McNamara’s intelligence or worthiness for his place in history Honestly, I’m not sure I could.  The truth is, I was just a very small child when McNamara was Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, overseeing such vital moments of American history as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Vietnam War. 

I wasn’t even born when he was the President of Ford Motor Company and created the seatbelt.  My mother was barely even born when he was a part of the military think tank that led to the firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities, leading to over a million civilian casualties.  Before seeing this film, McNamara was just a name in a history textbook to me.

McNamara is an engaging storyteller.  At 85, his mind is still like a steel trap, to the point that he can routinely rattle off prices and values of things over 60 years ago.  (This skill may have contributed to his Vietnam era reputation as an unfeeling war computer.)  He openly acknowledges that he made many mistakes in his tenures in positions of power.  

His explanations seemed well thought out and intelligent, imbued with equal parts pride and regret.  He is mostly very candid with documentary maker Morris, (he even acknowledges that General Curtis LeMay said truthfully that if the US had lost in World War II, they would be tried as war criminals for the Japanese firebombings), though he occasionally still has points that he evades.  It is still incendiary stuff, at least two people in the theater that I saw the film in vocally rebuffed his statements.

The last couple of years have been a high water period for documentary filmmaking.  Great films like Capturing the Friedmans, Bowling for Columbine, Winged Migration, My Architect and Stone Reader have raised the art form to unheard of levels.  So it is about time that arguably the greatest documentary maker of the past twenty years weighs in with his latest thought-provoking true life drama. 

Errol Morris has made such brilliant and diverse films as The Thin Blue Line, Gates of Heaven and A Brief History of Time.  The Fog of War is one of his best.  Morris is a master filmmaker, making a nearly two hour movie that is essentially one talking head (Morris is periodically heard egging McNamara on with pertinent questions) and historical footage fascinating and strangely beautiful.

The problem, or perhaps the blessing of McNamara, was that he was a statistician and businessman, not a military man.  He was determined to use probabilities and logic in warfare, which thrives on anarchy.  This leads to many visually arresting scenes where news footage of death and war are intercut with probability studies that led to the attacks.  Finally, when McNamara’s belief that Vietnam was a war that could not be won (seven years before the US finally left) clashed with President Lyndon Johnson’s beliefs, McNamara’s public service came to a swift end.

The most important thing in this film is that a man whose name was once synonymous with war has with hindsight come to realize that while war is often a necessary evil, sometimes it forces a government to do reprehensible things in order to attain good.  He also realizes that governments almost never put themselves in their enemy’s shoes, and without some empathy for his opponent, he can never hope to understand their motivations. 

McNamara says that if our own allies do not agree with our policies, then we may be winning the battle, but we’re losing the war.  In the long run, a government official has to weigh the bad that they do along with the good.  In this time of disappearing weapons of mass destruction and the government co-opting civil rights in the name of patriotism, these insights are more trenchant than ever.  Someone should tie George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Osama Bin Laden down and force them to watch this film.  (2/04)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2004 All rights reserved. Posted: February 14, 2004.

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