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Former corporate whiz kid Robert McNamara was the controversial Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, during the height of the Vietnam War. This Academy Award-winning documentary, augmented by archival footage, gives the conflicted McNamara a platform on which he attempts to confront his and the U.S. government's actions in Southeast Asia in light of the horrors of modern warfare, the end of ideology and the punitive judgment of history. Written by
[Per contact at the Errol Morris Foundation, the date is 8/5/1964, and the clip is from Press Conference on The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, National Archives #111-LC-48220]
[archival footage from the press conference on the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, 5 August 1964]
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For his award-winning documentary, `The Fog of War' a study of the moral complexities of war and those who wage it - Errol Morris has found the perfect subject in Robert S. McNamara, the man who served as Secretary of Defense in the early days of the Vietnam War. McNamara is astute, articulate, lively and thoughtful, and as a wizened man of 85, he is able to look back on the events of his life with the kind of analytical clarity and sober-minded judgment that only old age can provide.
Wisely, Morris allows McNamara to speak for himself, providing very little in the way of poking and prodding as interviewer and filmmaker. McNamara looks at his long and varied career through the prism of eleven lessons he's learned about life and human nature. Each of these revelations is tied into a specific chapter of that career and life. We see McNamara taking stock of his actions as they relate to World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and most notably, of course, the Vietnam War, in each case ruminating aloud about the moral imperatives and ethical decisions he faced on a daily basis as his crucial role in all of these events played itself out. Some may find his comments to be a bit self-serving, an attempt to whitewash the facts and minimize his own responsibility, particularly as concerns his involvement in the Vietnam War. Yet, in many instances, McNamara accepts the judgments of history and admits his culpability, even if he generally does so in a broader war-is-a-necessary-evil context. There are moments during his reminiscence when McNamara actually wells up with tears, thinking about the immense loss of life and personal tragedy that inevitably result from man's insane obsession with destroying his fellow man while all the time acknowledging that at times wars must be fought and casualties endured for a greater cause. All throughout the film, McNamara returns to this refrain, additionally warning us that, in the nuclear age in which we live, the human propensity for warfare could very easily lead us over the precipice to global devastation and annihilation as a species. We have little reason to believe that McNamara is not being sincere in his comments, although some more cynical viewers may wonder if he isn't merely saying what he thinks he should be saying in order to secure a more favorable reputation and image for himself as his life comes to a close. If that is, indeed, the case, Morris seems blissfully unaware of it, since he basically accepts McNamara's statements at face value. As an added and perhaps unintended bonus much of what McNamara says has a pertinent, timely, almost prescient ring to it, as the U.S. struggles through yet another foreign engagement, this time in Iraq.
As a documentary filmmaker, Morris demonstrates his usual skill at combining archival footage with one-on-one interviews as a way of bringing his subject matter to life. The caveat here is that Morris provides no counter voices to challenge any of McNamara's statements or his interpretation of events. Yet, as McNamara relates the story of his life, a fascinating history of 20th Century American foreign policy emerges in the background. We see many of the seminal figures from McNamara's time playing out the roles history and the fates assigned to them, from John Kennedy to Lyndon Johnson to Nikita Khrushchev to a whole host of other key players on the world stage. In addition, Philip Glass and John Kusiak have provided a haunting score to go along with the haunting images.
As the title suggests, this is a complex film on a complex subject and McNamara and Morris leave us with no pat or easy answers. That is as it should be.
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