In the twilight of the 20th Century - and the centurians who shaped it - the resume of Robert S. McNamara is as impressive and horrific as any man alive. He was the poster boy of The Best and The Brightest, the Harvard educated men who would lead post-World War Two America with intellectual brilliance and business savvy. As a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Corps, McNamara was there at the decision to bomb civilian targets in Japan. He rose up the ladder at the Ford Motor Company assuming its presidency a month before John F. Kennedy talked him into becoming the youngest ever Secretary of Defense, just in time to face the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis and the escalation of the war in Vietnam. When his two terms were up, he became President of the World Bank. If one were playing Masters of the Universe, Robert S. McNamara would definitely be a collectible action figure.
But wherever there is hubris, there is tragedy, and Vietnam was the worst and the darkest for the Best and the Brightest. McNamara wrote "In Retrospect" in 1995, in which he admitted the mistakes of U.S. policy during his tenure. But many people found it lacking personal accountability and the outright apology a Vietnam War demands. McNamara had reemerged as a graying eminence only to find he was still a whipping boy.
Fortunately director Errol Morris does not believe in killing the messenger. In the new documentary The Fog of War, the filmmaker has invited the messenger in, plied him with immortality, and come away with a work of stunning relevance and lasting value. Morris, who virtually reinvented the documentary with his true crime story A Thin Blue Line, has traditionally worked the underbelly of American life. In The Fog of War, he has committed himself to one talking head, sitting Robert S. McNamara in a chair and letting him tell his story, a story that includes the world nearly coming to an end.
McNamara is a clear-eyed, passionate and still-driven 87 year old, and there is something compelling about a once powerful man grappling with his legacy in the 11th hour. Morris has plenty of good B-roll footage and his signature Phillip Glass score full of existential dread. But this is merely sugar for the medicine. The real purpose of The Fog of War is to deliver a graduate seminar on the nature of folly. The film is broken up into chapters, comprising the 11 Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. They include very difficult - and unanswered - questions about the definition of war crimes. They involve misreading Fidel Castro, empathizing with Nikita Kruschev, and mistakenly applying Western values to the culture of Southeast Asia. And they feature some stunning bits of evidence, including a previously unreleased phone conversation between McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson about the escalation of the Vietnam War. It is not so much the words spoken as it is the haunting voice of the most powerful man on Earth sounding scared to death by what he has set in motion.
Like it or not, The Fog of War is our history. Perhaps we are doomed to repeat it. But at least Robert McNamara and Errol Morris have delivered the lesson plan. And that makes The Fog of War the most important film of the year.
© 2004 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 1/21/04
The Fog of War
USA - 2003