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Lessons Not Quite Learned


The Fog of War

Errol Morris, USA, 2003

Rating: 3.9



Posted: March 7, 2004

By Laurence Station

Errol Morris' highly idiosyncratic and artistically slanted documentaries have helped free a wrongly convicted prisoner (The Thin Blue Line), examined the mysteries of the universe (A Brief History of Time) and pondered death through the eyes of pet cemetery devotees (Gates of Heaven). But interviewing former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara proves the director's greatest challenge. Unlike the majority of Morris' subjects, McNamara (85 when the interview sessions began) is a cagey veteran of the media and knows how to handle himself in front of a camera. Thus, unlike electric chair designer and Nazi sympathizer Fred Leuchter (the subject of Morris' Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.), McNamara's not going to give away any more than he chooses to.

The Fog of War (saddled with the unwieldy but intriguing subtitle "Eleven Lessons of Robert S. McNamara") attempts to confront McNamara with his record during the Vietnam conflict, to discover whether he truly was a soulless technocrat who helped escalate the conflict, as he's been depicted in the media. McNamara doesn't budge, offering neither the mea culpa so many would like to see nor hiding behind the arrogant detachment of a self-deluded man in the twilight of his life. McNamara admits that mistakes were made, but makes sure we understand that the failings belong to President Lyndon Johnson and others, not just to him. He is reflective, but never breaks down and offers the full confession of sins Morris appears to be goading him toward with a pointed line of questioning. Indeed, McNamara sums up his approach to Q&A sessions perfectly, telling Morris he never answers the questions asked of him, but rather the questions he wishes he'd been asked.

One of Fog of War's most fascinating aspects is the contrivance of  linking McNamara's life to most of the key conflicts of the 20th century. His earliest memory is of the 1918 Armistice, when he was all of two years old. He aided General Curtis LeMay in orchestrating the notorious 1945 firebombing of Tokyo during the last few months of World War II, in which 100,000 civilians were burned to death. As Secretary of Defense, he sat beside President Kennedy during the brink-of-nuclear-war 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. And up until his 1968 exit from the Johnson administration, he was the prime architect of America's involvement in the Vietnam conflict. Morris does an excellent job of incorporating clips from McNamara's life in conjunction with the lucid words of the man himself, imparting a sense of history as he interacts with one of the pivotal players of the Cold War era. McNamara is an absolutely compelling subject and, though his words are carefully chosen, there's still genuine emotion when he talks about his time in Washington.

What's missing, of course, is a deeper sense of the man himself. Again, Errol Morris' biggest hurdle proves getting full disclosure from the headstrong McNamara, and Fog of War suffers as a result. McNamara's refusal to discuss the negative impact his involvement in world affairs had on his wife and children is the most obvious omission. Clearly, there is pain here, but McNamara steadfastly keeps us at a distance. We're only allowed to view the public (rather than private) man, and that ultimately leaves the film feeling incomplete and more exculpatory regarding McNamara's controversial political record than perhaps Morris intended.

Like all of Morris' highly stylized work, however, Fog of War is never dull. At times he tries too hard (such as filming a map with dominoes falling across it), but the idiosyncratic director certainly deserves credit for taking on the Sphinx-like enigma that is Robert Strange McNamara and achieving as personal an insight into the man's psyche as we're ever likely to get.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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