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
McNamara originally agreed to an hour-long interview for the Errol Morris PBS series, First Person (2000). The interview lasted eight hours and McNamara stayed for a second day of interviewing. He also returned months later, for two more days of interviews. Morris found himself with more than enough material for a feature-length documentary. See more »
[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]
Is this chart at a reasonable height for you? Or do you want it lowered? All right. Earlier tonight - first let me ask the TV, are you ready? All set?
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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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