Fog of War
The latest film from documentarian Errol Morris is, without question, the most important film of the year. While there are other films that are more entertaining, The Fog of War is hands-down the most fascinating and most compelling. Even if you're not a history buff, even if you don't know anything about the military or the history of war, it doesn't matter, The Fog of War is just that interesting of a film. Anyone who considers themselves to be an intelligent person should see this film, and share its messages with those who pride themselves on their stupidity.
Though the film is broken into eleven "lessons" from McNamara such as, "Rationality will not save us," and, "Never say never," Fog of War essentially chronicles the major events of McNamara's career from the firebombing of Japan to his work with Ford to his participation in the Vietnam war under presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Each segment tops the one before as McNamara provides startling insight to not only what happened, but what could have happened. In the first chapter, McNamara discusses the circumstances surrounding the Cuban Missle Crisis. He suggests that nuclear disaster was averted not because of political shrewdness on the part of the U.S., but by dumb luck. McNamara asserts that all Kruschev wanted was to be able to brag that he saved Cuba from invasion. If you think this is a kick in the head, wait until you hear what he has to say about Vietnam.
The image filmmaker Errol Morris creates of the former Secretary of Defense is a duplicitous one. Time and again McNamara admits participating in an errant military action while never accepting responsibility. He places blame for the firebombing of Japan directly on the shoulders of Curtis LeMay, then poses the question: Is it better to firebomb 100,000 Japanese civilians, or to risk a similar number of American lives with a full-scale ground invasion? He does not specifically discuss the Iraq conflict or any other military actions post-Vietnam, but he does state he disapproves of the United States acting unilaterally.
Morris brilliantly illustrates McNamara's narration through the use of simple yet powerful graphics and amazing archival footage. As McNamara describes LeMay's use of B-29 bombers to kill Japanese civilians, Morris presents the audience with footage from a plane as it drops bombs like confetti. After a brief cut to McNamara speaking the present, Morris cuts back to the footage of the plane but this time, the bombs have changed into numbers. Later in the sequence, McNamara compares the destruction of Japanese cities with the equivalent U. S. cities and the presentation of his statistics was absolutely chilling. For the chapters about Vietnam, Morris utilizes recordings of phone conversations between Johnson and McNamara as well as peculiar reenactment footage created by the U.S. government.
What is reenactment footage? As it turns out, the U. S. government staged and filmed reenactments of major military events, such as the incident in the Gulf of Tonkin. "Seeing" what happened was meant to help decision makers think about the event more clearly. Though McNamara says he doesn't recall commissioning any reenactment footage of the Gulf is Tonkin, his seventh "lesson" is: "Belief and seeing are both often wrong."
The trailer, and perhaps even this review have made The Fog of War seem to be a depressing film, but it's not. It's just really, really interesting. By the end, you don't know what to think of McNamara other than you've just seen the tip of a very large and complex iceberg. When Morris asks McNamara point blank, if he accepts any responsibility for what went on in Vietnam, McNamara simply replies, " I was serving the president elected by the American people." It's clear the man is as brilliant as he is shrewd. Morris himself says the film is "neither a work of biography nor a work of history" and I suppose that's the only way a film can work when its subject is the duplicitous Robert McNamara.
-Megan A. Denny