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The Fog of War

The Fog of War
Columbia TriStar
2003 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 107 min. / Street Date May 11, 2004 / 26.96
Starring Robert McNamara
Cinematography Robert Chappell, Peter Donahue
Production Designers Ted Bafaloukos, Steve Hardie
Film Editors Doug Abel, Chyld King, Karen Schmeer
Original Music Philip Glass
Produced by Julie Bilson Ahlberg, Robert Fernandez, Jon Kamen, Jack Lechner, Robert May, Errol Morris, Frank Scherma, John Sloss, Michael Williams
Directed by
Errol Morris

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This is an unusual film. It's an essay piece as only Errol Morris makes them: sober, deliberate and unconcerned with normal documentary agendas. Robert McNamara has long been vilified as the architect of disaster in Vietnam and the cold warrior brain trust for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. But hearing his own story from his own lips as he explains how things happened is both fascinating and educational. At 85 years he's still sharp as a tack. He appears to be far enough beyond the actual events of the 1960s to discuss them lucidly and for what they really mean, instead of how they affect his image.

Morris' stately pace and Philip Glass' droning music are an aid to concentration. Best of all, there's no liberal/conservative spin here. We feel we're accessing truth on a thorny subject, instead of watching points being racked up by opposing teams, and cursing the umpire.

The official title is apparently The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, and the lessons come more as philosophies to be contemplated rather than do's and don'ts. McNamara chronicles his work before becoming an integral part of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations - he was one of the 50s whiz kids of industry who used science, logic and the statistical analysis of WW2 bombing strategy as tools in business and government.

He made a name for being controversial by publicly contradicting a Kennedy White House press release that America was suffering a "missile gap" against a superior Russian force. McNamara actually said the truth, that the opposite was true!

We get some pretty intense and sometimes shocking reads of Kennedy and Johnson. Both Presidents are heard in discussion with McNamara and other staff members during major events like the Cuban missile crisis. McNamara convinces us that nuclear war was very, very close for a few days; when he later visited with Fidel Castro for a "what happened way back when" meeting, McNamara found out that during the crisis Castro was of a mind to not back down from Washington even if it meant the annihilation of his country. Luckily, the Russians retreated from the face-off on their own.

On the issue of Vietnam, McNamara admits that one "attack" by North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin was an Army-Navy fabrication, but another minor one appears to have been real. The audio tapes show him engineering an escalation and buildup in Southeast Asia for a President who seemed to have his mind set on a major war and didn't want to be bothered with the facts. Their Vietnamese counterparts said the idea that Vietnam was conspiring with Chinese communists to overtake Southeast Asia (the domino theory) was nonsense - the Vietnamese had been fighting China for hundreds of years and were certainly not allies.

The Fog of War is not a confession or an accounting of failures. McNamara's explanation of events shows that he was serving White House policy to the best of his ability and did not treat Vietnam as strictly a power game, as some think Henry Kissinger did (see The Trial of Henry Kissinger). His eleven rules are cautionary advice about making assumptions and the right and wrong way to build on the mistakes of the past. His first-hand WW2 experience with strategic bombing planning gives him a solid foundation on which to debate what war policy should and shouldn't be. Even in that "good" war we routinely slaughtered hundreds of thousands of German and Japanese non-combatants, sometimes just to do bombing studies for their own sake.

Errol Morris' style unnerves some because he only uses film technique to optimize the communication of his subject matter, McNamara's views and opinions. There's no fluff here, just the facts. McNamara's interviews are beautifully shot; rather than try to disguise the fact that he's cut out the gaps in the man's speech, Morris leaves the jump cuts in a raw state.

The documentary material is edited for simplicity, not flash. There is a smooth graphic style to some of the visuals that sometimes makes subtle use of digital manipulation, but more often chooses images that don't fight with the words being spoken. For instance, tape-recorded conversations are often accompanied by simple close-ups of a reel-to-reel tape recorder functioning. The most startling CGI image is a visual of planes bombing with statistics. Hundreds of individual numerals rain down on an enemy city in place of bombs. It readily communicates the idea of statistical analysis' place in combat - the transformation of mass murder to neat computations on paper.

The ultimate goal of The Fog of War is to illuminate, not inflame or proselytize. McNamara doesn't ask for our agreement with his ideas, and the filmmaker doesn't force any judgments on us either. We come out of this one feeling that McNamara and Morris have done us a huge personal service.

Columbia TriStar's DVD of The Fog of War is a flawless presentation. The handsomely shot interviews and the well-chosen documentary footage look great, and the sound mix is exceptionally good.

There are some interesting extras. Twenty-four additional minutes of bites contain interesting and illuminating material that fans of the film will want to see. One sample: "Kennedy told us all that the President's number one priority, what he owes his people the most, should be to keep the nation out of war." McNamara's 10 Lessons from his life in politics are ten cards that spell out what should be our foreign policy.

The disc also has the film's original trailer and two TV spots.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Fog of War rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: 24 additional scenes, "McNamara's 10 Lessons from his life in politics", TV spots
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 5, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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