Robert Strange McNamara had a long and colorful series of careers during his life, ranging from being one of the best and brightest in military intelligence during WWII through helming the Defense Department during the height of the Cold War and Vietnam Conflict to a long tenure as the head of the World Bank. Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris ("The Thin Blue Line") has the man himself tell us his story, particularly as Defense Secretary under Kennedy and Johnson, in a series of 11 lessons that teach us about "The Fog of War."
McNamara, from the start of his long careers in both public and private service, was always considered by those around him as "an IBM machine with legs." He graduated in the top of his class at Berkeley and went on to his graduate studies, with top honors, at the Harvard Business School. During World War 2 he provided analysis in formulating the most efficient way to devastate Japan prior to Hiroshima and Nagasaki under Curtis LeMay. After the war and prior to his stint under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations he joined Ford Motors and implemented many safety ideas that would later be included in all cars, such as safety belts. He even spent 5 weeks as president of Ford before resigning.
Robert McNamara rose to international prominence when Jack Kennedy offered him the job of Secretary of Defense. In that role he weathered such important incidents in America's history as the Bay of Pigs, the near nuclear war of the Cuban Missile Crisis and orchestrated America's involvement and, under Lyndon Johnson, escalation of the war in Vietnam. Documentary maker Morris is fortunate to have the narrative of this history by 85-year old McNamara as he lucidly and accurately recalls the earth-shattering events such as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution - the decision to institutionalize and escalate the war in Vietnam that may well have been based on false or erroneous reports of North Vietnamese aggression.
The lessons that Robert McNamara bestows upon us benefit from many years of hindsight that should, but will likely not, be heeded by the leaders of the world today. For instance, Lesson #8: Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning - could be applied to the recent overzealous decision to eliminate the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. All of the lessons provided make sense and should be the gospel of those people who control our very lives with their often-rash decisions.
McNamara unassumingly tells us all of the frequently sordid details of America's history during his time as Secretary of Defense. He is a natural in front of the camera and his narration of the many events he was personally involved in give a telling perspective of the time. The man's grasp of politics and sociology provides a wealth of information that, while not something I believe totally, gives at least a version of the truth through Robert Strange's eye.
Errol Morris also provides an episodic history of the US as he, in conjunction with his subject's life, tells of both great and personal events, from the firebombing of Japan's cities (and using the equivalent-size American cities for destruction comparison - Lesson #1: Empathize with your enemy), to McNamara and his wife's battle with polio and his award of the Medal of Freedom - the highest honor that the United States can bestow upon a civilian.
Extensive footage, photos and taped conversations between McNamara and presidents Kennedy and Johnson provide a perspective as to why events during the 60's played out the way they did. There is also footage and photos of such notables as Fidel Castro, Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Curtis LeMay. This documentary also shows the toll on the commander in chief as Johnson makes one decision after another to try to keep the war from escalating but is helpless to do so. In the span of a few short years you see the president age decades as events envelope him and his government. McNamara also brings to light a subject that was also documented in the enthralling indictment, "The Trials of Henry Kissinger." The former Secretary of Defense tells about how Kissinger sabotaged Johnson's peace efforts only to end the war, five years later, with virtually the same terms. More than half of the Vietnam War's deaths took place during that period.
Morris only gives us one, biased viewpoint in his document of American history but it is a succinct, clearly told memoir by a remarkable man who was, good or bad, instrumental in shaping US world policy. Lesson #9: In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil - may well be McNamara's excuse for executing a war that, by his own admission, could not be won.
McNamara explains that war is too complex a thing for the mind of man to understand and, maybe if his lessons learned are applied, we may not have to experience "The Fog of War" again. I give it a B+.
Documentarian Errol Morris ("Mr. Death," "The Thin Blue Line") engages a sharp and lively eighty-five year old Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam War, to explain history with hindsight in his fascinating "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert Strange McNamara."
Morris allows McNamara to defend and accuse his actions within eleven chapters and let his audience draw their own conclusions. "The Fog of War" is one of the most stylistically stunning of Morris's works and his subject, often accused of accelerating the war in Vietnam, is by turns keenly intelligent, contrite, defensive and ultimately human.
Morris advances his work with the Interrotron device he introduced in "Mr Death," which allows his subject to look directly at the camera as he questions him. The brilliantly sharp image is framed off center and slightly tilted for visual interest. Morris, perhaps making a comment on the objectivity of the documentary form, begins with 'outtakes' of McNamara directing his director on how to edit previously shot statements.
McNamara makes his primary sentiment known early and often - that any person in military power has made mistakes and killed people. The goal is not to destroy nations, learn from mistakes and pass the knowledge on. An old CBS Reports piece shows the young Secretary of Defense, informing us that he may have the toughest job in existence, responsible for 1/2 of every tax dollar spent. Shots of newspapers highlight descriptives such as brainy, con man, and an IBM machine with legs.
1) Empathize with your enemy
McNamara describes how Former ambassador to Moscow, Llewellyn Thompson knew Khrushchev could save face by saying he saved Cuba from US attack. Much later in the film, he explains how ignoring this lesson prolonged the Vietnam war - the North Vietnamese saw themselves in a Civil War and fighting for independence from enemies like China and us as colonialists attempting domination whereas we saw only the Cold War.
2) Rationality will not save us
Morris uses time lapse photography of modern Tokyo and other cities with multiple superimpositions as a striking visual to show what it at stake when those cities are targets. McNamara deplores that there are single men who can make decisions that will obliterate people. He relates how, in 1992, he learned from Castro that he had recommended to Khrushchev that he proceed with the missile strike even though he knew Cuba would be decimated.
3) There's something beyond oneself
McNamara fondly recalls his wife, Margaret Craig, saying theirs was a marriage made in heaven (although later he implies that family relations were strained during the Vietnam War, but refuses to talk about it). He tells his first story about his long relationship with Curtis LeMay, who he knew during WWII.
4) Maximize efficiency
Morris shows numbers falling like bombs over a map and McNamara recounts the fire bombing of Tokyo which claimed the lives of 100 thousand civilians in one night.
5) Proportion should be a guideline in war
McNamara admits that he and LeMay would have been war criminals for their actions in Japan during WWII if U.S. had not been the victor. He lays the blame for the extremity of the U.S. attack at LeMay's feet, however, and expresses horror that we destroyed 50-90% of 68 Japanese cities BEFORE we used the atom bomb.
6) Get the data
The Ford Motor Company was barely breaking even, when McNamara, the first non family member to be made president of the company, demanded safety stats not previously gathered and concluded that padding steering wheels and instrument dashes and adding seat belts would save lives. He was only in the top spot for five weeks when JFK convinced him to accept the Secretary of Defense seat. A very emotional McNamara describes picking out JFK's grave site in Arlington National cemetery.
7) Belief and seeing are both often wrong
McNamara describes the escalation of tensions during the Cuban Missile Crisis standoff based on a non-existent torpedo attack reported by over-anxious sonar readers.
8) Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning
The present situation in Iraq is all too uncomfortably evident when McNamara asserts that a country should never unilaterally apply military power because if we can't convince our allies to stand with us, our reasoning may be flawed.
9) In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil
The end justifies the means...a defensive former Defense Secretary.
10) Never say never
'Never answer the question that's been asked of you - answer the question you wish had been asked of you.' During this segment, Morris asks who was responsible for the Vietnam War. 'The president,' (LBJ) replies McNamara, who opines that JFK wouldn't have sent 500 thousand men there. In order to underscore his stated disagreement with the Commander in Chief, McNamara makes sure to note that less than half of the ultimate fatalities had occurred when he stepped down. He then backpedals to proclaim great affection and loyalty to LBJ, who awarded him the Medal of Freedom.
11) You can't change human nature
It is here that McNamara explains the phrase 'the fog of war,' saying that war is so complex, it is beyond the human mind to understand all the variables. He once again regrets his mistakes but states that he is proud of his accomplishments. An epilogue gives us his career history, including his presidency of the World Bank for thirteen years (see the documentary "Life and Debt" for more information about this institution and the effects of globalization).
Morris uses jump cuts of his subject, which also emphasizes the shaping of his film's view. Typical Morris technique includes closeups of a teletype, punch cards, and dominoes falling over map which emphasize the material like the giant coffee cup he used in "Mr. Death." Philip Glass's scoring, so out of place in a drama like "The Hours," is extremely effective here. Morris's concluding shots of McNamara driving around DC are oddly moving, the man's stature reduced somehow shown as a senior behind the wheel.
"The Fog of War" is the best work Errol Morris has done in decades, not only because of the maturity of his style, but because of his ability to bring his subject to life with their own words.
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