Dir: Errol Morris. US. 2003. 95mins
Errol Morris's latest documentary/essay, The Fog Of War, is a brilliant, nuanced examination of the career of Robert S McNamara, who served as secretary of defence in the US cabinet during the Vietnam War. Owing to its intellectual, moral and political complexity, the film, which will be released in the US by Sony Pictures Classics, should play equally well around the world. The film enjoyed a special screening at this year's Cannes.
What is especially noteworthy about it is that so many of McNamara's 11 'lessons', as enumerated here by film-maker Morris from the man's remarks, seem more relevant now than ever toward understanding the dilemmas created by the rise of the US to the position of unique world superpower. Owing to McNamara's own deep intelligence, apparent moral sensitivity, and downright ability to manipulate perceptions (at one point he says 'Never answer the question that's been asked of you, answer the one that you wish had been asked'), however, the film provides few smoking guns or knockout blows. Morris is clearly aware of this, and seems to respect his subject while all the time trying to reveal as much of the inner man as he can.
As a cinematic experience, The Fog Of War is rich and full-bodied. Morris seems once again to be using his patented interview device, in which the interviewee looks straight into the camera and yet is also able to see interrogator Morris at the same time. The images are a blend of archival television and newsreel footage, visual recreations of objects mentioned in the interview (dominoes falling in south-east Asia, for example) and the defiant presence of McNamara's stern yet expressive visage.
Rather than stick to a strict (and thus boring) chronology, Morris nicely allows McNamara skip around as he will, throwing a barrage of dates up on the screen to keep viewers focused. A haunting score is provided by the sonorous repetitions of Philip Glass and is kept appropriately in the background, unlike in The Hours, whose Glass score many found intrusive.
Moral quandaries are explored and shown to be impossible to reduce to easy answers, so hardcore partisans of both the right and the left will probably be disappointed. McNamara comes off as part of that notorious, arrogant, overachieving band of Kennedyites known derisively as 'the best and the brightest' (he especially is shown to have been obsessively concerned with an inhuman statistical efficiency throughout his career) while also demonstrating his genuine humanity, for example, by nearly sobbing when he describes JFK's final resting place in Arlington Cemetery. He also admits freely that he and his colleagues never understood that the Vietnamese were fighting a civil war. Most interestingly, perhaps, the film shows that the roots of all that McNamara was to become lay in his experiences in World War II.
Astonishingly, McNamara admits that both he and the savagely militaristic General Curtis LeMay would have probably been prosecuted for war crimes, owing to the firebombing of Axis cities, if the Allies had not won the war. Most relevant to the contemporary situation is the former secretary's absolute insistence that the US must never again act unilaterally to achieve its goals.
Prod co: Senart Films@Radical Media Production, Globe Department Store
US dist: Sony Pictures Classics
Int'l dist: Columbia TriStar
Exec prods: Jack Lechner, Jon Kamen, Frank Sherma, Robert Fernandez, Robert May, John Sloss
Prods: Morris, Michael Williams, Julie Ahlberg
Cinematography: Peter Donahue, Robert Chappell
Prod des: Ted Bafaloukos, Steve Hardy
Eds: Karen Schmeer, Doug Abel, Chyld King
Music: Philip Glass