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
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[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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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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