The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara
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Index 153 reviews in total 

150 out of 163 people found the following review useful:

Still Confident and Brilliant, Still Seeking to Hold the Moral High Ground

10/10
Author: Ralph Michael Stein (riglltesobxs@mailinator.com) from New York, N.Y.
20 December 2003

My first encounter with Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara was in the late spring of 1966 when, as a young Army Intelligence officer just rotated back from Asia, I was assigned to the General Staff in the Pentagon and directed to brief him. The first of a number of occasions when I either briefed the secretary or, more often, was a resource aide to a senior officer, I was cautioned by a nervous lieutenant colonel to expect questions but never, absolutely never, to ground my response in "intuition." It was the pre-Powerpoint age but all briefers were admonished to either have facts best supported by charts and numbers or to simply confess ignorance.

I acquitted myself reasonably well and there followed almost a year and a half of observing the nation's highest defense officials and generals in the superheated pressure cooker atmosphere of what we called the "Puzzle Palace."

Gifted documentarian Errol Morris's "Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara" is a vital and presciently timely examination of a past that can repeat itself with incalculable harm to the United States. Interpolating documentary film clips from World War II through Vietnam with excerpts from an extensive interview with McNamara, the camera always focused on the alert, articulate and still (controllingly) brilliant eighty-six year old former secretary, Morris quickly takes viewers through his early life getting quickly to World War II. Then as an officer specializing in systems analysis he became a significant analyst whose studies supported the carpet bombing of Japan. His comments about General Curtis "Bombs Away with Curt LeMay" LeMay reflect his transition from wartime admiration for a superb combat leader to distrust of a four-star Air Force chief of staff champing at the opportunity to use nuclear weapons while we still had a commanding edge in what came to be called Mutual Assured Destruction.

Interesting and important as McNamara's early war activities were, the crux of his life and the undying source of charge, defense and recrimination is his stewardship of the Defense Department during the early and mid years of the Vietnam conflict.

Where Michael Moore wears his views on his sleeve and on the screen through entertaining ridicule and now predictable pillorying of his subjects, Morris wisely and effectively lets McNamara tell his story, prompted by an off-screen inquisitor whose tone is neither hostile nor friendly. The evidence supports McNamara's claim that he sought disengagement during the Kennedy years and he repeats the unprovable belief that J.F.K. would never have permitted the escalation that followed his death (McNamara's account of being Kennedy's right-hand cabinet man during the Cuban Missile Crisis can only leave viewers dry-mouthed as the implications of the Cold War cat-and-missile game clearly emerge as truly bringing the specter of nuclear conflagration to near reality).

McNamara frames his eleven life lessons, none startling new advances in philosophical thought. He joins many scholars and advocates of binding international law, the majority of whom have never heard a shot fired, in arguing for the concept of proportionality in the exercise of force. He never seems to realize that contemporary armed conflict is very different, politically and militarily, from his wars.

While stating sorrow for what war has wrought, and recognizing his own role, he never apologizes and credibly advances his message for the future through the technique of universalizing: mankind has a problem with violence. I was doing the best I could.

Tapes of conversations with President Johnson, who eventually fired him with such subtlety that the Defense Secretary had to ask a friend whether he had resigned or been canned, are especially fascinating. Fractal shards of a once close and then disintegrating relationship, the brief excerpts illustrate just how little both the President and McNamara actually knew (McNamara made many trips to Vietnam-I remember them well. Each time he came back with a positive spin on what was an unraveling military and political situation).

At the Pentagon I was struck by the almost total concurrence McNamara's policies and statements enjoyed among civilian leaders and generals alike. McNamara, I thought then and now, was not a man who needed sycophants. He was simply so sure he was right that it probably never occurred to him to wonder why he rarely encountered disagreement. I particularly remember Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Earle Wheeler as a mindless echoer of the secretary's thoughts.

A brilliant documentary and a fair one too. McNamara clearly wants this film to be part of his legacy without it being an apologia.He does admit the United States was wrong in misjudging the nature of Vietnam and its history, wrong about assessing on-the-ground intelligence and wrong in not securing support from nations with traditions and values similar to ours (a curious and somewhat Europhilic anachronism). At the end he clearly and brusquely cuts off questions about personal guilt that, I'm sure, he will never be ready to address. Fair enough.

I generally dislike any music by Philip Glass but in this film the minimalist score works very well against the documentary images. It would have been a big mistake for Morris to use the folk and protest music of the past.

Morris is probably the finest, from an intellectual standpoint, documentarian working today in the U.S.

10/10 (because of its enduring archival and current thought-provoking value)

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123 out of 128 people found the following review useful:

Morris Versus McNamara and the Political Pundits of the Left

Author: Roland Atkinson (psychflix@comcast.net) from Portland, Oregon, USA
2 February 2004

If you're like Errol Morris, and you want to make documentaries about unusual personalities, it's one thing to choose obscure subjects, people like Fred Leuchter (aka "Mr. Death") or men that excel in topiary hedge sculpture or the study of the African mole rat (two of the people interviewed in "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control"). Not many critics out there will be waiting to pounce if you don't get things just right about the likes of people like these. But it's quite another matter if you choose Robert S. McNamara, one of the last century's most towering, controversial, and - some would say - evil characters. "Fog of War" distills more than 20 hours of interviews that Morris conducted with McNamara over a span of two years, when McNamara was in his mid-80s, and the subjects - all various McNamara ventures - range from "his" World War II, through his days at Ford Motor Company, the Cuban missile crisis, and - finally and mainly - his views of the Vietnam War.

As a result, Morris now finds himself in a no man's land of critical crossfire. On the one hand, film critics - people like Steven Holden, Roger Ebert and J. Hoberman - uniformly praise this work. While political pundits of the left - people like Eric Alterman and Alexander Cockburn of "The Nation" - lacerate Morris, accusing him of being overmatched, manipulated, not doing his homework (i.e., being naïve and unprepared), and thus allowing his film to be nothing but a conduit for the formidably crafty McNamara's continuing campaign of self aggrandizement and distortions of history. Whew. I think the controversy here is based on a misconstruction of the film's purposes by the pundits. First, it is quite clear that McNamara, in full command of his fierce intellectual and interpersonal powers, is not about to be pushed around by an assertive interviewer. McNamara is gonna say what McNamara wants to say, period. To drive home this point, Morris gives us a brief epilogue in which he asks McNamara a few trenchant questions about his sense of responsibility for the Vietnam War, why he didn't speak out against the war, and so on. And McNamara won't bite. He stonewalls Morris absolutely, with comments like, "I am not going to say any more than I have." Or, "I always get into trouble when I try to answer a question like that."

More importantly, it doesn't matter very much if Morris or McNamara does not get all the facts straight. If the political pundits went to the movies more often, at least to Morris's films, they would know that his primary interest is in the character of his subjects - their integrity and beliefs and ways of explaining or rationalizing themselves and their lives: he's into people way more than into facts. "Fog of War" is not an oral history, it is the study of a person. For all that, in my estimation, Morris does get on film as close to an acceptance of responsibility for his actions in two wars as McNamara is likely ever to make, short of some dramatic, delirium-driven deathbed confession. He speaks of the likelihood that he and Curtis LeMay would have been deemed war criminals for the fire bombing of Japanese cities, had our side lost. And he speaks clearly when he says "we were wrong" in not seeing that the Vietnam War was a civil war, not a phase of some larger Cold War strategy by the USSR or China. What do the pundits want?

Nor was it Morris's purpose to use Santayana's lesson about repeating history to rail at Bush's preemptive war in Iraq. In fact Morris decided to make this film way back in 1995, after reading several books by McNamara and concluding that he was a quintessential man of the 20th Century, embodying all that was so outstandingly smart and sophisticated and ultimately destructive. The interviews wrapped sometime in 2001, the year before Iraq. As usual in Morris's films, the editing is superb, with seamless use of archival footage and special visuals created for this film. I do think Morris gratuitously flattered McNamara by organizing the film around 11 platitudes of his - many of them banal aphorisms known to most high school graduates, students of martial arts, or your grandmother (e.g., "get the data," "empathize with your enemy," "rationality will not save us," "belief and seeing are both often wrong").

Political pundits, mired in interpreting concretisms from the historical record, not only see too few films but also don't take seriously the symbolic visuals and sounds offered here. Philip Glass has created an edgy, anxious score that feels just right, just creepy enough for the macabre subjects at hand. I'm also thinking of the scenes when McNamara is recounting his pioneering (he claims) studies of auto safety. As we listen to him, Morris shows us human skulls wrapped in white linen being dropped several floors through a stairwell to smash upon the floor below, all in slow motion. The effect is chilling and speaks volumes about McNamara's famed passionless capacity to treat human carnage as a matter of statistical calculation. It is through such poetic characterization that Morris keeps the game with McNamara in balance.

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68 out of 75 people found the following review useful:

Fascinating and Compelling

9/10
Author: Howard Schumann from Vancouver, B.C.
9 February 2004

Educated in the best Ivy League schools, successful leaders in the business world, they were the best and the brightest, the core of John F. Kennedy's administration. They came to office in 1961 with high hopes that the world would become a better place. When they left, these expectations lay shattered amidst the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam. Considered the architect of what came to be known as "McNamara's War", Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense under both Kennedy and Johnson, was one of the brightest but had the reputation of being aloof and arrogant. This public image, however, may not have been the whole story. In the fascinating Oscar-nominated documentary, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, Dr. Death) interviews the now 86-year old Defense Secretary in an effort to come to terms with what led to the quagmire of Vietnam and reveals a more complex, even strangely sympathetic man.

Interspersed with archival footage, actual news broadcasts, and tape-recorded conversations from the period, the interview documents McNamara's personal account of his involvement with American policy from WW II to the 1960s. Culled from 20 hours of tape, the interview is separated into eleven segments corresponding to lessons learned during his life such as "Empathize with your enemy", and "Rationality will not save us". The Secretary does not apologize for the war, saying he was only trying to serve an elected President but is willing to admit his mistakes. He says that he now realizes the Vietnam conflict was considered by the North Vietnamese to be a civil war and that they were fighting for the independence of their country from colonialism, (something opponents of the war had been trying to tell him for over five years). Morris never undercuts McNamara's dignity or pushes him into a corner yet also does not slide troubling questions under the rug and there are some questions McNamara does not want to discuss.

Though his reputation is that of a hawk, previously unheard tape-recorded conversations between McNamara and both Presidents reveal that he urged caution and opposed the continued escalation of the Vietnam War. In 1964, we hear Johnson say. "I always thought it was foolish for you to make any statements about withdrawing, but you and the President thought otherwise, and I just sat silent." McNamara also discusses his role in World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his accomplishments as President of the Ford Motor Company. In talking about Cuba, he reveals how close the world came to nuclear annihilation, saved only by the offhand suggestion by an underling. McNamara repeats over and over again, demonstrating with his fingers, how close we all came to nuclear war. He talks openly about his involvement in World War II under General Curtis Le and how he helped plan the firebombing of 67 Japanese cities including Tokyo in which 100,000 Japanese civilians were killed. In a startling admission, he says that if the allies had not won the war, both he and Le May could have been tried as war criminals.

Mr. McNamara has spoken out a bit late to save the lives of 50,000 Americans and several million Vietnamese but at least he has spoken and we can learn from his reflections. Though the Secretary does not apologize for the war, saying he was only trying to serve an elected President, to his credit he has looked at the corrosiveness of war and what it does to the human soul and we are left with the sense of a man who has come a long way. While his lesson that "In order to do good, one may have to do evil" sounds suspiciously like "the end justifies the means", his sentiments are clear that the U.S. should never invade another country without the support of its friends and allies. He says, "We are the strongest nation in the world today", he says, "and I do not believe we should ever apply that economic, political or military power unilaterally. If we'd followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn't have been there. None of our allies supported us. If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we'd better re-examine our reasoning." A valuable lesson indeed.

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64 out of 71 people found the following review useful:

mostly McNamara, but just enough Morris to make it a masterpiece

Author: Perini from Bozeman, Montana
8 November 2004

People who watch Errol Morris' Fog of War will be left with a lot to think about. There are a number of parallels to be drawn between what Americans faced during the Vietnam War era and what Americans face now with middle-east conflicts. Morris has directed several controversial documentaries, but Fog of War is very different. He allows the subject of the documentary, Robert McNamara, to remain the focus of the film from beginning to end. Fog of War is very stylish but the artistic features don't take away from the social and political commentary. Instead, they add to it and make the film more enjoyable. This is an important film and while McNamara deserves most the credit for its success, Morris presented the content of this film in a way that made it both provocative and entertaining.

When Morris had an opportunity to interview Robert McNamara, he had no idea what was about to happen. Morris was making a film about Vietnam, not McNamara specifically. However, what was intended to be a 20 minute interview turned into a several hour candid conversation. This interview turned conversation became the backbone of Fog of War. It is obvious that something like guilt has been bugging McNamara and for whatever reason, Morris brought it out.

As a former secretary of defense for John F. Kennedy and then Lyndon Johnson, McNamara was one of the most important figures from the Vietnam War, in charge of things like bombing campaigns and overall military strategy. Before that, McNamara was a brain behind figuring out how to kill lots of people in World War II. At one point, McNamara says directly to the camera, '…we were behaving as war criminals. What makes it moral if you win but immoral if you lose?' He's making a point about the way the U.S. and allied forces bombed the hell out of Japan, sending hundreds of thousands to fiery graves, mostly civilians.

Morris uses what he calls the 'Interrotron', a device which allows the subject, here it's McNamara, to look directly into the camera and see the interviewer, here that's Morris. To the audience, it seems like McNamara is looking right at us, which makes it seem even more confessional than it already is. At certain times in Fog of War, McNamara seems so happy that he has an opportunity to talk about his experiences, but at other times, he seems like he's so defensive about his reputation. All of that seems to have something to do with the way Errol Morris asks questions. Morris is friendly but asks pointed questions that McNamara has a tough time avoiding.

Probably the most important moment of Fog of War is when McNamara talks about mankind and its inability to learn from history. He seems very pessimistic but has moments where he seems to think people can learn from the past. It's easy to think about Donald Rumsfeld and wonder what sort of conversations he might have with McNamara. Another great moment in Fog of War is when McNamara gets to meet a general from the Vietnamese army, one of McNamara's adversaries from 30 years ago. It's then where we see that McNamara still doesn't accept much responsibility for what he did during the Vietnam War. He thinks of himself as just being an employee working for the president.

Fog of War makes people think about a lot, but that's because of Robert McNamara more than Errol Morris. This was McNamara's film and Morris just happened to hold the camera in place when he probably felt like cringing or even laughing at times. During his famous acceptance speech for Fog of War, which won an Academy Award for Best Documentary, Morris reminded the worldwide audience to be careful, because the United States seems to be making the same mistakes it made during the Vietnam War. That's up to the audience to decide, but Fog of War definitely makes everybody think about that.

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45 out of 49 people found the following review useful:

Grappling with a Difficult Film

9/10
Author: Philip (pwallach@wesleyan.edu) from Middletown, CT
7 November 2004

If you possess an especially smug view of history's finality, this film may not do a great deal to impress you. For the rest of us, however, Errol Morris presents a truly complex picture of a clearly complex man.

Many of the reviews I read of the film complain that there doesn't seem to be a main point that emerges from the film or its eleven "lessons," which are admittedly too cute by half in many cases. The point, though, is the complexity itself. The point is that history is bigger than its main players, and inscrutably difficult to judge in a definitive moral sense. I don't think I will ever forget McNamara's probing, clearly emotional questioning of the rules of war or the lack thereof, when he discusses how one evening he and general Curtis LeMay decided to burn to death 100,000 people in the Tokyo firebombing. The portrait of McNamara, as well as the two presidents he served, is one of human beings through and through, with all the fallibility and conflictedness that entails. The central quandary of war emerges for the viewer to see: it is the business of killing people, and that means that mistakes cause people to die needlessly.

As I said, this film, taken in the right spirit, is deeply challenging. I would recommend it to anyone who has grappled with the enormity and awfulness of the history of the twentieth century.

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50 out of 62 people found the following review useful:

Flawed but still relentlessly interesting

Author: bob the moo from United Kingdom
27 June 2004

At the age of 87, Robert S. McNamara sits to be interviewed by documentary maker Errol Morris. He relates his experiences over his lifetime and talks about his success and his failures and the lessons he has learnt. Starting out as the youngest professor at Harvard university, McNamara talks about his drafting into a special unit during WW2 where bombing sorties were statistically analysed and looking for improvements. The team's findings and recommendations resulted in a change of bombing strategy that was so efficient that it killed 1.9 civilians in 67 Japanese cities. Following the war he carried these same skills to accident and sales analysis for Ford before becoming JFK's Secretary of Defence. It was in this position that he publicly advocated the Vietnam War which led to the deaths of 47378 US soldiers and over 2 million North Vietnamese.

I came to this film with high expectations of it being very barbed and sharp. I didn't know who McNamara was prior to this film but I was very quickly able to get a feel for him through the old footage, even if I doubt I held the clear view of him that many Americans do of him when he was in office. The film is mostly him talking to camera and this appears to have been its main weakness in one regard as well as being its main strength. In terms of strength, this approach gives us the intimacy of a conversation with McNamara and, while he is very guarded and clearly still very careful about how he presents himself, I found some of the statements he made to be quite honest and damning. However at the same time it seems like Morris has simply had a long list of topics and just left the camera running while he lets McNamara chat – creating two problems.

The first problem is the '11 lessons' aspects; these feel like an afterthought – some way of giving a conversation a structure. However they don't all work as the headings don't always fit what is being said and it causes McNamara to jump around a little bit (time wise). Talking of jumping around – the long shoots that Morris must have had must have produced very long sentences for he has had to edit them down almost into cuts of a few words and, as McNamara is an animated talker it means that he jump-cuts all over the shop – very distracting and hard on the eyes at some points! Despite these problems the film still works because it is consistently interesting. McNamara seems happy to talk and he is very easy to listen to even with Morris' frantic editing. While I was aware that he was still the same name who had professionally glossed over a lot of things (and at times refused to get into things in the interview) he did say some things that surprised me with his honesty. For example, admitting that, had the Allies lost WW2, those involved in the firebombing of Japanese cities would likely have been tried for war crimes was a shock and was only one of several similar statements he made. However these are rather offset by how careful he is to not blame himself too much and to rather justify what he did; the film helps him out a bit as well and seems to go rather lightly on him. The only thing that makes this acceptable is that Morris has gotten his hands on recently released White House records and tapes that back up McNamara's claims that he was not totally in support of Vietnam (although how he has the nerve to wear a dove on his lapel is beyond me!) and the recordings of ex-presidents in conversation are worth hearing.

This painting of history makes the film very effective as a sobering look back at historical conflict. The most unnerving part of the film for me was McNamara's continued assertions that the men involved were all 'rational men' and not crazy James Bond villains. The fact that these rational men came 'this close' to nuclear war is a very scary thought. Similarly, other memories of his are quite scary but funny at the same time – in the same way as Dr Strangelove was for example. In fact one memory sounds like it could have come straight from the mouth of General 'Buck' Turgidson himself and that's where McNamara suggests that the US could keep its missile advantage over Russia by imposing a mutual limit on testing – only to be told that the Russians would cheat by 'testing on the dark side of the moon'! At that moment Turgidson's line about a mine shaft gap did not seem so fanciful!

Although his points were not as sharp and relevant towards today's Administration as I had expected it was still pretty interesting as a look back with hindsight and, while he is far from broken about what he has been involved in, he certainly is not too proud to look back and judge the overall actions that occurred (even if he was reluctant to accept any more than a little bit of responsibility for his part). He is a great subject though and, like many men who have lived a life, is worth listening to even if you get the impression that he is not as reflective as he think he is. Morris is pretty much an off screen presence for the whole film, only really being heard once or twice prompting for more information.

Overall this is a must see documentary simply because it picks back over the bones of some terrible conflicts and some terrible events and we do it with one of the men who was part of plans and decisions that killed millions. I would have liked him to be pressed more about this (he cries over JFK's death but not over the millions killed in 'his' war) but the film goes a little too easy on him, even supplying us with White House tapes that back up McNamara's claims that he was often a voice of reason – certainly JFK's immediate successor is very critical of him in a phone conversation. The lack of real structure is a big problem and it may have better to pick another tack than the 11 lesson thing – it doesn't really work and it causes some of the film to feel rather aimless and disappointing when his words don't actually match the 'lesson'. However, for all it's flaws, the film is consistently interesting and I could honestly have sat there for hours and just listened to McNamara talk away – he is a mystery and has carved out a terrible place in history but he is also a big reason that this documentary is well worth seeing at least once.

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34 out of 38 people found the following review useful:

Lessons Learned

Author: Roland E. Zwick (magneteach@aol.com) from United States
11 July 2004

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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34 out of 42 people found the following review useful:

Here Comes Santayana.

8/10
Author: Robert J. Maxwell (rmax304823@yahoo.com) from Deming, New Mexico, USA
19 December 2004

Where are you when we need you? A President from Texas acts upon faulty intelligence and gets the endorsement of Congress to use whatever force is necessary and then invades a country whose destiny is more or less irrelevant to the security of the United States. The war generates opposition at home and abroad. The President's domestic programs are cut in order to fund the war. Fifty thousand American lives are lost, and countless indigents die, despite the application of America's high tech weaponry. Having committed himself, not to mention the troops, the President is unable to back down because he doesn't want to lose. "Cut and run" is the expression he uses. In the end the country is united under an anti-American government and forgotten about.

This really should be required viewing for voters who may not remember, or may not choose to remember, Vietnam. Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it, to roughly quote George Santayana. It's easy to get into a war, and much harder to get out.

And we should bear in mind that the subject of this interview, Robert Macnamara, didn't stand on the sidelines. He was at the center of the Vietnam conflict, which lasted about ten years. He was Secretary of Defense during eight of those years, until fired by Johnson for his increasingly public dissent. He organized the logistics of the war, gave JFK and Johnson advice. Sometimes the conflict was referred to as "MacNamara's War." So he's nobody's idea of an armchair analyst.

The most telling and relevant moment comes at the beginning, during the Cuban missile crisis of October, 1962. President Kennedy has received a letter from Chairman Krushchov, saying, basically, that if the US promises not to invade Cuba, the Soviet missiles will be withdrawn. Then a second letter arrives, taking a much harder line than the first, implying a Soviet attack on America.

What to do? Curtis LeMay, the Chief of Staff, thinks that since a war with the USSR is inevitable, let's begin it now while we have a 17 to one missile superiority. Another adviser suggests responding to the first, softer letter, while ignoring the second one. Kennedy demurs. What will that get us? He doesn't want to be seen as backing down. The adviser tells him, "Mister President, you're wrong about that." (MacNamara comments, "That took guts.") Kennedy finally gives in and agrees to follow the diplomatic route and responds to letter number one only. We wind up dismantling some obsolete missile bases in Turkey and in exchange the Soviets withdraw their missiles and war is averted. Who is the sage who would now tell the President, if a similar situation arose, that he was wrong? MacNamara comes across as a sympathetic and compassionate guy. He cusses a bit and his eyes tear up when he remembers picking out JFK's grave site in Arlington National Cemetery. He also describes -- without at all boasting about it -- his valuable contributions to the bombing campaigns of World War II.

I don't see any bias in Errol Morris's editing, although who knows what wound up on the cutting room floor? It's MacNamara's show all the way and he's candid, keeps the secrets he feels necessary, and never loses dignity. He wrote a book about his period in office admitting that he'd made many mistakes in the run-up to and execution of the Vietnam War. The general reception by the liberal reviewers was that apologies weren't enough. Nothing was enough. The reviewers showed a lot less in the way of compassion than MacNamara shows here.

The music is by Philip Glass, who is neat. It's hard to comment on the photography because so much of the footage is from newsreels or TV. It's a fine documentary and ought to be shown in political science classes. It should keep the students interested because it blends the human element with the political. The statistics that were so important to the President of the Ford Motor Company and the Secretary of Defense don't play much of a part in this documentary. What will keep the class attentive is the reenactment of all those human skulls bouncing down the staircase of a dormitory at Cornell University.

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27 out of 36 people found the following review useful:

The parallel to the war in Iraq is painful.

Author: John DeSando (jdesando@columbus.rr.com) from Columbus, Ohio
3 March 2004

Errol Morris's `Fog of War' may be the best documentary that fuses a controversial historical figure (in this case, Robert McNamara) with his grandest moment (The Vietnam War). `Grand' is ironic because 58,000 dead soldiers cannot be `grand,' the US exit was hardly so, and McNamara's ambivalence about the event and his responsibility give the film an authenticity and humanity that last year was shared only with `Capturing the Friedmans.'

Morris, letting McNamara narrate almost the entire film, cuts between the fit 85 year old Aspen skier recollecting the ‘60's and 70's and footage from that time when he served as secretary of defense under Kennedy and Johnson. That he is a Harvard--educated, clean-cut, brainy bureaucrat easily changing from leading Ford Motor Company to the Pentagon is obvious. That he allowed the US to go deeper into the war than he personally believed it should is a possible inference from his carefully-crafted dialogue about `responsibility.'

He has no problem admitting his major role in firebombing Tokyo in WWII, killing 100,000 Japanese in one night; his boss, General Curtis LeMay, would have had it no other way. But when he almost wistfully speculates that President Kennedy would not have let the war escalate, it is clear what McNamara also wished. But why he didn't criticize the war after he left the Johnson administration he let's us speculate, hinting only that he had information we don't.

Throughout the interview (Morris now and then is heard asking questions, especially about McNamara's responsibility), Morris keeps him in the right side of the frame, off center as a metaphor for the confusing war and this secretary's ambivalent role. Like any top-rate documentary, applications to human nature and current events abound. The cool necessary to operate under murderous circumstances is reflected in this wonk's slick hair, rimless glasses, and self-serving dialogue. He is animated when he most seems to have missed the point and embraces the romance of evil, which one of his `lessons' says may be necessary to have in order to do good. The parallel to the war in Iraq is painful. He warns in his first `lesson' we must learn from our mistakes. The inference for us could be, if Vietnam was a great mistake, why are we forgetting it again.

For the former secretary, Ernie Pyle's words could hold special meaning: `War makes strange giant creatures out of us little routine men who inhabit the earth.'

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24 out of 31 people found the following review useful:

Honest Account of Important Lessons Learned

10/10
Author: Gary Murphy (glm@hilbertinc.com) from Olathe, KS, USA
8 June 2004



I just watched the movie the "Fog of War". It is a candid interview with Robert McNamara. He is an 85 year old veteran of WWII and was Secretary of Defense under John Kennedy and Lydon Johnson. Of course, that made him Secretary during the Viet Nam war.

It is an amazing account of the lessons learned from a man who lived in interesting times in a powerful position of influence. I get the sense that it is exceptionally honest - about both the success and failures. It was directed by Earl Morris and has a kind of refreshing balance that is NOT present in the films of Michael Moore. I highly recommend this movie.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the movie is that the lessons McNamara learned are still not understood by the Bush administration with respect to the Iraq conflict. The parallels to that conflict and the conflict in Iraq are scary. Once of the eleven enumerated lessons are a need to respect and understand the culture of the people with whom you are engaged in conflict. He made the statement that he believes that the reason that the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 ended peacefully was that they reached a point where they really tried to understand the Soviets. The reason that Viet Nam failed is that we never learned to understand the culture of the people of Viet Nam. He also mentioned that none of our allies with largely shared values were opposed to our involvement in Viet Nam. We should have recognized that as a warning sign that perhaps we were doing something wrong.

Scary, isn't it!

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