March 4, 2004

The Fog of War

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While Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was probably this weekend’s most controversial film, across town another movie was playing that featured a study of an individual that, to some people, is just as debatable. That movie is the Academy Award winning The Fog of War, and that person is Robert McNamara, who is most famous (or infamous depending how you think of him) for being the Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson. Under his tenure, the United States’ involvement in Vietnam increased to a full scale war. Documentary maker Errol Morris bases the entire movie on his interview with McNamara himself. As a result, McNamara often gives candid advice and stories about his experiences in World War II, the Cold War, and Vietnam.

At the heart of this documentary is the 85 year old McNamara. Here is a figure that for my parents’ generation, was the personification of the unfeeling, war-hawk Pentagon official who fought wars based on statistics instead of human cost. Even McNamara admits during the film: “I bet a lot of people think I’m a son of a bitch.” However, as the interview progresses, McNamara comes across not as the stodgy war conjurer he is often portrayed as, but instead as a very dynamic person. McNamara seems cold and distant at some points in the film, then his disposition changes to very personal and emotional. At the same time, McNamara follows us descriptions of the horrors of war with comical stories about his life. In one part of the documentary McNamara gleefully describes how he and Cornell aeronautical engineers dropped human skulls down the stairwells of good old CU dorms in an effort to develop the first seatbelts while working for Ford Motors.

While McNamara may be the subject of the documentary, The Fog of War is really the masterpiece of Errol Morris. As McNamara speaks, Morris reinforces his narration with bits and pieces of photographs, documents, and miscellaneous items from the Secretary of Defenses’ career. The film progresses chronologically, but, like a recalled memory, still jumps around between time periods as McNamara inserts facts that he forgot to mention earlier in the film.

Initially, the viewer is disappointed. Morris attempts to ask tough questions about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the reasons why the U.S. involvement was escalated, and who was really at fault for the Vietnam stalemate, yet McNamara shies away from any definite answer. While McNamara admits that terrible mistakes were made, he often contradicts himself or becomes fuzzy when he is pressed to tell who made these mistakes and what they were thinking.

However, through McNamara’s indecisive responses, Morris proves a much more powerful conclusion than any straight answer the former secretary could provide. That point is simply that war, and human nature, which it is a byproduct of, is so complex and so inexplicable, it rarely can be analyzed and explained as it occurs. As a result, Morris has taken many things about war, human nature, and McNamara himself that were originally black or white and exposed their surprising shades of gray.

Archived article by Mark Rice