(Originally posted on 12/24/03)
I'm a long-time fan of documentarian Errol Morris, whose 1978 debut Gates of Heaven - a touching examination of two Middle America pet cemeteries - remains one of my all-time favorite films. His latest, The Fog of War, is a stunning portrait of Robert McNamara, the notorious Secretary of Defense during both the JFK and LBJ administrations. McNamara has been widely vilified as the architect of the Vietnam War, and Morris has him directly address the camera while speaking so that he can doggedly focus his camera's gaze on McNamara's weathered, animated face. McNamara recounts the major highlights of his life -- narrowly averting nuclear war with Cuba; working with LBJ on the Vietnam War -- with insight but also, more tellingly, with a good bit of reservation. While he's a loquacious and thoughtful speaker and is willing to admit that mistakes were made with regards to Vietnam, his refusal to admit to any ethical failings (or concede that he feels guilt or remorse) comes across as yet another example of the deception and denial that characterized much of his Defense Secretary career.
The film is sub-titled "Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara," and the film is broken up accordingly, with Morris allowing McNamara to ruminate on issues like the "fog" of war -- which refers to the inability of man to comprehend the innumerable variables of large-scale military combat -- and on his belief that "proportionality" should be a fundamental principle of military engagement. McNamara's explanation for the Vietnam failure is that, unlike the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US's lack of knowledge about the Vietnamese and their motivations made it very difficult to imagine the enemy's perspective on the war (which they saw as a civil struggle, not an extension of the Cold War). It's a sound perspective, but the subject's occasional desire to balance his shortcomings by discussing his good deeds -- as president of Ford, for example, he introduced the first seat belts -- reveal a calculated but unconvincing attempt to deflect attacks that he was a callous bastard unfazed by the deaths of his countrymen.
As usual, Morris almost mucks things up by repeatedly cutting away to a few staged clips meant to reflect the story's themes -- here, the image of rows of dominoes falling across a map is exasperatingly overused -- but fortunately, the film's wealth of archival footage largely overshadows these obvious signifiers. The Fog of War is a fascinating look into the mind of one of 20th century America's most controversial military figures, but perhaps its greatest accomplishment is its assessment of the catastrophic dangers posed by human fallibility. McNamara describes in vivid detail how the Cuban Missile Crisis was the byproduct of three world leaders' logical strategizing, and his terrifying point is that rational deliberation is incapable of preventing man from making mistakes -- a frightening thought considering that, in the age of nuclear weapons, one misstep could mean the destruction of civilizations.