"If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, then we had better reexamine our reasoning."
- Robert McNamara, "The Fog of War".
"The Fog of War" may not have been the film that I considered the best of 2003 (although it is in the top 3), but it is the film from 2003 that I consider to be the most important. It is the one film in the past few years that I've gone back to the theater to see not once, not twice, but three times. Chilling, fascinating and thought-provoking, this documentary by director Errol Morris ("The Thin Blue Line") is certainly, in my opinion, deserving of the awards it recieved.
The film is structured around an interview with Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam era, who also served as the former head of Ford Motor Company, as well the former president of the World Bank. McNamara, now 85, has the kind of energy and speaks with the kind of enthusiasm that one can only hope to contain when they reach that age. There are, however, glimpses of sadness on occasions and, seemingly, glimpses of words unspoken.
The 106-minute film has McNamara looking back over the events that he has participated in over his lifetime - the film is structured as 11 "lessons" that he has learned over the years, including: "empathize with your enemy", "Rationality will not save us", "Belief and seeing are both often wrong" and "Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning". The film's opening segment largely deals with the former Secretary's memories of the Cuban Missle Crisis, which was solved largely by luck and some much-needed empathy, as we were "this close" (he holds up two fingers slightly apart) to a nuclear disaster. Years later, a meeting between McNamara and Castro revealed to McNamara exactly how far Castro was willing to go if war began.
McNamara discusses his role in World War II, under the intense command of General Curtis Lemay. McNamara talks associating with Lemay and about the firebombing of Japanese cities that was done by Lemay. McNamara ponders the fact that, had the US not won (and, McNamara asks, "But what makes it moral if you lose and not immoral if you win?") that he and Lemay would have tried as war criminals - McNamara even admits, "we were behaving as war criminals." The film's segment on Vietnam looks at the planning from behind-the-scenes, as we see and hear the thought process through interviews, footage and recorded conversations between McNamara and others, and then we view the conversations as the situation spirals further and further out of control ("...we don't know what's going on out there.") Once again, McNamara talks about meeting with another leader (in this case, one of the leaders in Vietnam) years later, only to find out how different things were than he thought.
Morris and his editors expertly mix McNamara's statements with stock footage, interviews, still pictures, recently released phone/office conversations and other elements. The minimalist score by Philip Glass adds somber, melancholy feel to the film, as well as a sense of dread. The core of the picture, however, is McNamara, who is a charismastic speaker and extremely engaging storyteller. As McNamara says, "Never answer the question that has been asked of you, answer the question you wish had been asked of you." McNamara does seem to seem withdrawn on some topics, including important ones, such as why he didn't speak out against the war after leaving office. However, he reveals a great deal and says many things throughout the film that are very important to hear today.
"Fog of War" operates as a powerful reminder of the humanity of the leaders of the world, who are often working on their instincts and not always enough information. Leaders who make mistakes, as well. We must learn from those prior mistakes and, with increasing power at the disposal, there will be no opportunity to learn from future mistakes. "The human mind cannot comprehend all the variables of war", says McNamara, late in the film.
VIDEO: "Fog of War" is presented by Columbia/Tristar in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. I was very pleased with how the film looked on this transfer. Understandably, some of the older footage that the film uses does show some noticable grain and a few instances of specks, marks and other wear. However, much of the footage looks surprisingly good, considering its age. The new interview footage of McNamara is consistently sharp, crisp and well-defined.
The picture remained free of edge enhancement, compression artifacts or any wear that did not seem age-related. Colors remained accurate and subdued. Overall, this was a very fine transfer.
SOUND: "Fog of War" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, but the material certainly doesn't require much in the way of aggressive audio use, as McNamara's discussion is certainly the focus. Glass's score is spread out nicely across the front speakers, with occasional, slight reinforcement by the surrounds. Dialogue and score remained crisp and clean-sounding.
EXTRAS: The main supplemental feature is 38 minutes worth of deleted footage, which includes more discussion of working with the Kennedys, McNamara's association with Lemay, discussions of how troops were going to be pulled out of Vietnam, stories from McNamara's past and a discussion of a conversation McNamara had with a protestor in 2000, among other topics. While some of this footage seems interesting if not necessary, there were a lot of deleted here that I thought could have been interesting additions to the film. The film was apparently edited down from many hours of interviews with McNamara, so there is evidentally much more in the way of deleted footage that no one will probably ever see.
The other supplements include McNamara's "lessons" and trailers for "The Fog of War", "Big Fish" and "Winged Migration", along with 2 TV spots for "Fog of War".
Final Thoughts: "The Fog of War" is both an incredibly engaging portrait of a very controversial political figure and an powerful cautionary tale, showing lessons learned. This Oscar-winner is certainly a must-see, even for those who aren't interested in politics or documentary fare. It's just an excellent film that seems to be better and more involving every additional time I've viewed it. Columbia/Tristar's DVD edition provides very good audio/video quality, but I would have liked a little more in the way of supplemental features. Very highly recommended.