The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003) Poster

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Morris Versus McNamara and the Political Pundits of the Left
thecineman2 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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10/10
Still Confident and Brilliant, Still Seeking to Hold the Moral High Ground
Ralph Michael Stein20 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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9/10
Fascinating and Compelling
Howard Schumann9 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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9/10
Grappling with a Difficult Film
Philip7 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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mostly McNamara, but just enough Morris to make it a masterpiece
Perini8 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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Lessons Learned
Roland E. Zwick11 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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8/10
Here Comes Santayana.
Robert J. Maxwell19 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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5/10
'The Banality of Evil, Part 2'
rudiger21 April 2006
I once read Adolf Eichmann's capacity to engineer The Holocaust described as 'The Banality of Evil' and that pretty much sums up other soulless, high-level bureaucrats like McNamara and Rumsfeld, as well. They effortlessly block out the horrendous nature of what they've been tasked to do by the rationalization of how brilliant and efficient they were, even if that brilliance and efficiency causes the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

The mere fact that McNamara, to this day, loves to continue talking and dwelling on his life's 'accomplishments' as a source of pride is a textbook study on the psychology of how anyone, no matter how supposedly brilliant, can rationalize what are otherwise despicable acts.

And just like a high-ranking Nazi war criminal, McNamara is quite clever and does a good job of trying to convince the viewer that he's somewhat repentant of what he's done, but it's readily apparent that his real agenda in making this documentary is to make sure everyone knows what a clever bastard he was throughout his life in whatever he was instructed to do. It's this 'brilliance' that is his ultimate absolution for the consequences of his actions.

This is the real reason he stuck it out with Johnson, even though he claims to have disagreed with his policies. Had McNamara even an ounce of conscious, he would have quit immediately when Johnson began the Vietnam escalation but he just couldn't bring himself to believe that anyone else could do as good a job of prosecuting the war. Likely as not, Rumsfeld will make the same claim years from now.

It's astonishing how similar McNamara is to Donald Rumsfeld in virtually every aspect. I guess we'll have to wait another thirty odd years or so to watch 'The Banality of Evil, Part 3', when Donald Rumsfeld makes his attempt at getting people to believe he's repentant for what will surely be judged as equally (if not more) catastrophic-as-Vietnam 'Iraq experience'.
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Flawed but still relentlessly interesting
bob the moo27 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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The parallel to the war in Iraq is painful.
jdesando3 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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7/10
Interesting , Sympathetic and Flawed Documentary
Theo Robertson25 May 2005
My own opinion of former defence sectary Robert McNamara is the same as that from critics who described him as " A conman ... An IBM computer on legs " and a technocrat who swapped technology for statistics . But this documentary entitled THE FOG OF WAR almost had me writing a heart felt apology to the man . I did say almost

What you think of this documentary is how you morally view conflict and morality . Is there any morality in waging war ? Probably not aside from pursuing a national interest and I did admire McNamara's honesty in saying if America had lost the second world war then the American government would have been tried for war crimes . We also learn that the United States Army Air Force found out the best way to stop a 20% mechanical failure on American planes bombing Germany was to court martial pilots if they turned back before reaching the target which soon led to a 0% mechanical failure on USAAF planes . Not to blow his own trumpet McNamara also tells his audience that he commissioned market research for Ford motor company , took part in amazing ( And quite amusing ) safety tests and fitted seat belts in American cars which save about 20,000 lives every year

But it was the waste of lives in South East Asia in the 1960s that McNamara is infamous for and it's this part of the documentary that I have a serious problem with . Despite what the liberal lobby screech about Nixon widening the war in South East Asia the waste of human life must fall squarely on the shoulders of LBJ and Robert McNamara . McNamara is NOT a stupid ignorant man but according to this documentary he was responsible for msome quite ridiculous errors such as not reading up on Vietnamese history or realising the conflict was a civil war . Of course it could be that because he was such an authoritative figure where statistics was concerned McNamara could be of the mind set that a war of attrition where one side with superior fire power with total command of the air and sea holding a manifold kill ratio over the other side will always win a war . This is totally consistent with McNamara's and American military ( Especially Westmoreland ) thinking but this aspect of American strategy in Vietnam is never brought up . We're also led to believe that The Gulf Of Tonkin incident was hyped up by Johnson but is McNamara blameless ? Yes according to McNamara because a war is a president's responsibility in which case I have to ask what does a defence sectary do all day ? And if someone who killed 100,000 Japanese civilians in an air raid is " A war criminal " then how do you describe someone responsible for fighting a war that eventually led to over 3,000,000 deaths most of them civilians ? There's some massive contradictions here especially when you consider " Empathizing with your enemy " is something he learned during the Cuban missile crisis but totally forgot for some reason during Vietnam

Despite the rather biased subject matter it's impossible to neither hate Robert McNamara or THE FOG OF WAR in the way someone can hate either Donald Rumsfeld or FARENHEIT 9/11 . With a Michael Moore documentary you know what to expect - Smug partisan glee that adds nothing to knowledge or understanding of a situation while the same smugness seems to be part of parcel of the Rumsfeld ego trip and you can't accuse Rumsfeld of being any type of intellectual . McNamara is different because he is a learned academic and while you may not agree with the 21st century neo-con admin in Washington you can at least understand where they're coming from . In a not very heavily disguised reference to the present war on terror McNamara says America lost the Vietnam war because " None of our allies Germany , Japan , Britain or France agreed with us " . Untrue . America lost Vietnam because neither LBJ or his defence sectary bothered to understand Vietnamese nationalism . Worse still unlike the present war on terror none of the strategy involving intervention in Vietnam was necessary in any way
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10/10
Honest Account of Important Lessons Learned
Gary Murphy8 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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Swimming in a Fluid Context (Cambodia?)
tedg3 May 2005
Everyone should see this, if only to transcend the myth of absolute morality. This is no Kissinger or Bush, but an intelligent and reflective man who truly wants to understand his context. Both he and the filmmaker are experienced at bending reality around them to make sense.

Everyone lives in their own movie. Some strong people can convince others to adopt their movie, which is what much of religion/politics has become today. McNamara is a master at getting others to adopt his movie, but he never was adept at building a complex internal narrative himself.

Now, late in life, he's interested in finding out what such composition is all about.

He was able to escape this need when entering Ford. All he had to do was absorb the "movie" of the relevant world and master it. In the business world, there already was a well-formed narrative, that one invented by Wall Street financiers that involved certain metrics and calculations. This was absorbed and mastered by Mac with little effort: all went into imposing it on those at Ford who by all accounts had no sense or narrative.

The point is that he could sell a "story" derived from the greater story of the context. All his methods (get the facts and so on) pertain to these two tasks.

The substance of this documentary is the battle between two narratives to impose a story on events that seemingly had none. Nothing wrong with that; that's how history is invented. But we get to see a struggle here between two strong minds, each rooted in a different context.

And I have to reluctantly say I'm on the side of the war criminal.

The filmmaker has the consensus of the people on his side: Vietnam was a misguided mess base largely on an imagined threat and involving lies to the populace. It was more costly than any war in US history excepting the Civil war in terms of what it prevented from being addressed. Under Nixon, it formed the basis for large-scale mistrust of government which dominates today.

The lies, imagined threat, mistrust and opportunity cost are the "truth" of the day, as solid as any and that's why the lessons of Vietnam are thrown at the current situation in Iraq. The filmmaker also has control over the images and the way the whole thing is presented. By all rights, he should win.

Mac has reflection on his side. Yes, he participated in the events: we get all sorts of qualifying background here: Lemay, firebombing, Ford, Kennedy. In that day, he was warrior of the narrative, what would later be known as "spin" and "on message."

But he's not that now. Now he is not a seller of the movie but an inventor, rather a reinventor. No historical figure has gone to as much effort to understand the context of their important prior actions. He's met the Russians, the Vietnamese, the Chinese, the Cubans. Instead of explaining away their "movies" he's adapted his own. He's clearly doubting his own rock.

Between these two approaches to narrative: the filmmaker's certainty and Mac's certain uncertainty, both struggle for control over the movie we see. Mac wins. All history becomes fluid.

There's a much quoted utterance here where he says if the US had lost the war, he would be tried as a criminal. Quoters of that impose their own truth on it and focus on the "war criminal" part. But the other half is by far more interesting and complex: the winners create the narrative, the history, the movie.

The real wiz kids both live in their own movie and question it.

Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.
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2/10
I believe McNamara is using the media to absolve himself of responsibility for the highest death toll of any military conflict this county was ever involved in.
frank-herrera814 June 2005
I am a Vietnam-era Veteran. I watched "Fog of War" this evening and I was pretty much disgusted at how the ex-Secretary of Defense uses the media to portray him as a victim instead of the war monger he really was. Feelings? Regret? Compassion? All of this is being conveyed strictly in retrospect. He had one mission and one mission only; send as many young, innocent, healthy American men, and women, as you think it will take to win that war. A war that wasn't even a damn war; it was a "Military Conflict", from beginning to end. Look at the Vietnam Memorial. That's why it's designed the way it is. War was never declared. The Memorial is below ground because it's the only military conflict we ever lost, and we are ashamed of it. It's black, because it's the only black mark on our military history. It starts with one name, gradually builds higher and higher, below ground, to it's apex, then phases smaller and smaller, until the last name, still below ground; the same way we gradually phased in to the conflict and gradually phased out of the conflict. There was no declaration at the beginning or at the end. For McNamara to come out now with this "I was a pawn in the big picture" bull is a disgrace to all the military and civilian personnel who lost their lives in that "Conflict". He should be ashamed of himself for the part he played. In the bigger picture, he would be much better off, and I'm sure he would feel much better, to cleanse his soul by apologizing to the American public; in particular the families of those that didn't come home.

These are my feelings, but I won't get the luxury of having them broadcast by "Encore" cable TV. What I will get the luxury of is going to bed at night with a clean conscience. Can McNamara do that? I don't think so.
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6/10
a bit disappointing
gracie285 March 2004
An interesting effort, but rather one dimensional. Basically it is an hour and a half interview with Robert McNamara with various video and audio weaved into various places. It would have been much more interesting to hear more voices balancing McNamara. They were certainly available. At any rate, this documentary seemed overrated. Some useful insights, but far from a major achievement. Some reviews said liberals and conservatives alike would find things to be enraged about, but we didn't find it interesting enough to be even a little angry, much less enraged. McNamara comes across as an equivocating dissembler. We've known this for many years. Not really a lot new in this movie.
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9/10
Chilling, disturbing portrayal of American foreign policy's pseudo thoughtfulness
alexmatte3 July 2012
I can't remember when I last saw anything as chilling as this great documentary... maybe the original 1988 version of The Vanishing, which equally left one profoundly disturbed at how studied and artful yet gratuitous and without any ultimate meaning or purpose the genesis of certain evil is.

The lifetime analytical/"intellectual" opus of McNamara, on behalf of the US government, as portrayed in the records shown on the Fog of War, is eerily reminiscent of those obsessive Nazi written orders and documents that we see in WW2 documentaries. Everything counted and tabulated, percentualised and extrapolated. Such infinite trouble and such enormous pains taken, such an exemplary work ethic shown, such savage analysis and documentation undertaken... and all for what, other than the pursuit of goals actually lying between pure amorality and utter immorality?

It's understandable and thereby tolerable that one - nation state or individual - should fall into unforgivable amorality or immorality by default, by sloth, out of disorganisation, cluelessness or personal weakness. But to somehow achieve as output an utter darkness of spirit after such effort, study and personal severity is devastatingly eerie, perverse and perplexing.

McNamara does have a momentary tear in his eye as he recounts his decades of power across several utterly brutal wars, and it is for Jack Kennedy and his final Arlington resting place. Ultimately, he can be summed up via the school-captain smirk he wears standing next to Kennedy as he announces his appointment as Secretary of State in 1961. Power for the sake of power, success for the sake of success, any claims made to morality and right as meaningless as they are irrelevant. The man a perfect reflection of his country post war. Macchiavelli would consider himself surpassed.

These are conclusions that someone, ethically sensitive but not at all prejudiced here (indeed barely knowing anything about this man), can reach here just by viewing what is effectively a documentary self-portrait. Director Errol Morris' genius consists in having allowed McNamara to reveal himself so eerily and damningly even while being given free use of a stage to lay out a grand sophistry of reflections, rationalizations and truisms to justify or expiate his lifetime's work.

Quite an unforgettable experience, and multiply so because so unexpectedly and improbably given the self-portrait format. Phillip Glass' own genius should be acknowledged, as well as Morris' brilliance in exploiting it in The Fog of War, with eerie minimalism the perfect soundtrack here as in The Thin Blue Line 15 years earlier.

We may not quite have plumbed the depths of gut-emptying futility and Shakespearean despair with this documentary X-Ray of McNamara, but we are close. I can only think of Henry Kissinger, Richard Perle and a few of the latter's soul mates as subjects that could supply an even more devastating moral experience and take us to rock bottom itself.
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2/10
Rewriting of History at its Worst
R FC27 November 2005
Robert McNamara was deceptive and cunning back in the 1960's, and he has not changed one bit. While I think Mr. Morris is a fine filmmaker and this film is worth watching for technique, Mr. Morris allowed McNamara a podium to rewrite history without challenge. In that way, this film is a failure and shows that Mr. Morris is not capable of rigorous, investigative reporting. McNamara at one point in the film says that whenever he went before the press, he never answered the question asked but rather answered the question he wished was asked. He does the same in this film and Mr. Morris allows him to get away with it. McNamara controls the moment and rewrites history to suit his needs. Anyone who lived through the years when he was Secretary of Defense knows that he personally lied constantly to the American people and he was, and is, guilty of war crimes (at least he admits to this point). As such, this documentary is a shameful attempt to seek forgiveness and is just another lie on the part of someone who wants us to believe that he was a peacemaker, when in fact he was a contemptuous war criminal.
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3/10
Watered down confession of a war criminal
jjalan15 February 2005
Hooray for Robert McNamara! As the Grim Reaper gets ever closer to calling his number, former defense secretary and mass murderer Robert McNamara sits down in front of a camera and admits he could be considered a war criminal. Maybe a war criminal? Here's a news flash for you, Mac, you are a war criminal. There is nothing fantastic or enlightening about Robert McNamara confessing to war crimes. Gee, if only Henry Kissinger would feel a little guilty when he undertips a waiter at a Vietnamese restaurant. McNamara can do all the documentary pseudo-confessions he wants but the gates of hell are opening up nice and wide just for him. If he really wants to purge his sins, it's going to take more than a half-hearted I might have goofed; perhaps a thousand-mile trek carrying Kissinger's head on a pike before prostrating himself on a Cambodian killing field, or maybe on top of some leftover ordnance in Vietnam, or perhaps he could set himself on fire like a Buddhist monk or that silly Mormon. If McNamara is seeking some form of redemption with this postgame mewling, he fell way short of the mark.

Aside from the above complaint, this documentary is also kind of boring. I give it a three out of ten because at least McNamara owned up to something, though not nearly enough, while Henry Kissinger still walks the streets with his goodies intact.
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A sickening rationalization of irresponsible decisions that irrevocably transformed the world.
lewwarden11 June 2008
Warning: Spoilers
As a member of an 8th Air Force B-17 bomber crew who served under Curtis LeMay and bunked in the same Nissen hut as a lead crew navigator with LeMay in the right seat, I saw young men like myself die in bunches of 100 at a time and survived against all odds with the firm conviction that never again would the political leaders of the world's major nations be so stupid as to take their people into war again. God, how naive and wrong could one possibly be? And so I have watched with dismay and anger the mistakes of the heads of state on all sides have made again and again beginning with Korea.

I also was a student at Cal Berkeley at the same time both Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk were there and I'm not buying this crap that they were just trying to do the best they could to serve the objectives and desires of their Presidents. By all accounts, both JFK and LBJ were in awe of McNamara's intellectual powers, which, in retrospect turned out to be superficially brittle at best. Rusk, on the other hand, was plainly out of his depth and apparently knew it because he protected himself by keeping his mouth shut and going with the flow.

McNamara would have us believe that he just didn't know anything about Vietnam's centuries old struggle with China; Rusk, ever the speechless Buddah, just wasn't talking, although his education and war service in Asia should have given him a clue. So if neither man had any knowledge of Vietnam's history, they were just about the only academics at Berkeley, which then as now, because of its position on the eastern Pacific rim, was focused on the the Orient. And at post-war Berkeley, the phenomenon of Titoism was a matter of daily discussion.

Our Presidents get the glory and the blame for our nation's successes and failures, but, really, they are just figure-heads, political animals who are isolated from the real world by the nature of the institution and must depend heavily on the advice of people like McNamara and Rusk. And if McNamara didn't know this before, he surely knew it by the time this fascinating documentary was filmed. The blood of millions of innocent people is on McNamara's hands, and photographer and director of this film have most eloquently captured his awareness of his guilt. He sure had a lot of chutzpah to try and sell his "I just didn't understand" nonsense to the obviously disbelieving but nonetheless polite Vietnamese survivors of his former arrogance.
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10/10
as intelligent, true and straightforward- but inventive- as documentaries come
MisterWhiplash6 July 2006
The Fog of War, one of the best film of 2003, is because of the chances that Errol Morris takes with filming his subject, former defense secretary Robert McNamara, combined with the countless images either in montage or slow-motion or brief archival footage mode. It's an assembly of very insightful, if (of course) not altogether the whole truth and nothing but, interview clips by letting the viewer into the way of thinking of this man who became apart and witness to World War 2, Cuba and Vietnam conflicts. It would be one thing to just have a simple sit-down interview with the man and his total life and career choices and the like. But just right in the way Morris films McNamara you know you're getting something different. He is shown (practically) going on in his sharp, raspy 80-something voiced monologues, and he is always looking at the viewer into the camera. It's something a little better than a trick, as it's a special camera set-up where the viewer is given a more personalized take on the subject looking right on. It's left up to the viewer, then, to decide how much is real reflections and honest accounts, or maybe not.

It's amazing to see such a man as McNamara go on- holding a great interest- in the cross-sections of his life, which was never planned but taken in stride for better and for lesser times. McNamara's tips, or 'lessons' as they are sectioned off in the film, range from delivering hard facts and even poignant touches. And there are so many lessons that come through the film, not just in the overall point of each segment but in the little marks of knowledge about the nature of mass warfare, conflicting with the other side (and the possible empathy needed for it), that sometimes one not living around in that time of McNamara in the white house may wonder how he grew to be disliked in the press and public. Of course, even McNamara has to say "there are some things I can't talk about", and once this is understood what information is given is presented in a very nifty way. Sometimes even still images showing McNamara listening or talking to his Presidents speak many words. The symbolism is great, too, as dominoes fall, or reverse.

The Fog of War succeeds so well in presenting McNamara's reflections and stories and accounts, it even borders on being emotional, or having at least a sentiment (not sentimentality) about the many errors in human judgment in times of crisis. When he talks of people who were rather flawed like Curtis Le May, it's with a kind of logic though that measures out the wrong with what was at least considered right. The morals of men under pressure are a big component in the film, and as the Vietnam section rolls along- and a lesson learned from the Cuba crisis is left by the wayside- it becomes as close to shocking as the PG-13 film could get. For all of the mistakes or faults in judgment or of the dreaded uncertain times McNamara found himself in with those around him, there was good accomplished as well, if for the future to see. One of the best moments in the film is when the former defense man tells of a meeting he had in 1995 with an old Vietnam leader, who has to set the record straight for him to understand the real core of conflict. Such moments have a haunting resonance that also acts in other sections of the film.

That all of the stories are fascinating, and then wrapped in this expertly edited style of old clips (as well as ultra-rare audio tapes from inside the white house) with Phillip Glass's better than usual score, only adds to its appeal. It's straightforward in that it is quite the subjective document and testimony, but it's also a unique film for how it pushes into demanding its audience be smart enough to grasp all that McNamara, and Morris, have in mind. It's the kind of film, too, that I watch almost any time it's on TV.
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Can wars be a guessing game of reading the Znosko-Borovsky on chess combinations, or realistically a nation's realistically a moral and creative ploy to give no distinctions between civilian and military tar
janyeap4 December 2003
Call Errol Morris's mind-blowing documentary as expressing one war mastermind's attempt to make peace with his soul, or a revelation of historically shocking facts that's bound to bring the audience to reassess the meaning of wars and the role of nuclear weapons in international politics. It documents Robert McNamara's dialogue, exposing a once successful auto-industrial businessman who then ran the largest U.S. bureaucracy and made defense policies in the nation's capital. Philip Glass' musical scores stirs up the same contemplative and atmospheric moods in this film the way his composition did for "The Hours.'

Through a series of seeming ‘interrogations', the former U.S. Secretary of Defense presents 11 lessons, from his life, to allow the audience to weigh the possibility of ‘side effects' and unexpected consequences that could have resulted from war confrontations. He cautions that deadly catastrophic blunders had almost occurred during America's wars with Japan, Vietnam and Cuba. According to McNamara, conventional wars cost lives - sometimes thousands of lives. But if mistakes were to effect decisions on the use of nuclear forces, they would bring about the destruction of whole societies. Quoting the famous Clausewitzian perspective of `the fog of war', McNamara explains that `war is so complex, the application of military power is so complex, that the human mind is incapable of controlling all the variables.' He also stresses that an honest military commander should recognize his mistakes as he has killed people, but that the learning period for any military commander would fail to exist with nuclear weapons. It's truly eerie for me to hear that the risk of uncertainties obviously does exist.

It's hard for me to imagine how close Cuba came to be completely eradicated from the globe, or to picture the mass death toll in both Japan and Vietnam. It is also difficult to for me to think of the burning of Tokyo, or listen to the story of Norman Morrison, a Quaker, who torched himself (but threw his infant child to safety) outside McNamara's office. Whoa, who knows? What I witnessed on screen could well prophesize the current Iraqi War situation. Yep, this uncanny film documents McNamara's personal account of the hidden chapters of America's war involvement from WW II to the 1960s. It's a window to assessing whether we can continue to believe that our elected leaders were/are accurate in their determination of other nations' prerogative affairs? Were/Are they justified in tampering with other nations' aspirations? What is the audience supposed to see as wartime atrocities? Will history repeat itself?

This is definitely an important and unforgettable documentary to watch. Whatever opinion is achieved from Director Morris' thought-provoking film, I'd say it does open up its door to some very important discussions about contemporary and future wars.

A-
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8/10
a sort of grunt's-eye view of history
Charles Herold (cherold)27 November 2004
This is an interesting documentary precisely because it makes so little effort to put McNamara's actions in a larger historical context. We catch glimpses of the world's opinion of McNamara in MTV-fast clips from newspapers, but mainly this is McNamara in his own words. He is thoughtful and quite bright, but even though he was an architect of a war, in a way his is the soldier's view of battle. In a way the soldier only sees a portion of the battle, McNamara gives us a very specific view of history. He is an intriguing character, interested in the complexities and ambiguities of action, admitting at one point that he could be realistically considered a war criminal but often skirting responsibility for his decisions. He comes across not as duplicitous but as simply limited to a view of the world informed by his particular place in it, which is true of most of us. A documentary about McNamara could have shown other viewpoints and given a very different perspective on the man, but it's fascinating to just hear this one intelligent if biased perspective.

Morris does a better job than usual of staying out of his own film's way. I have always found him intolerably gimmicky, but here his restless editing actually works, and for once I even like a Philip Glass score, which helps the film sustain its melancholy tone. This is not to say that I didn't get sick of his endless slow motion shots of historical incidents or didn't wish he would display press clippings at a speed where I could actually read them all, but overall the film is very effective.
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Vietnam was a holocaust
steveseymour1 August 2004
In the film McNamara said 3.4 million Vietnamese dead. Now that is a holocaust.

I learned in my freshman year of college 1967-68 at a debate between an English professor and the schools Reserve Officer Training Corp commander that Vietnam was to be reunited through national elections in 1956 after the Vietnamese defeated the French who were trying to regain their colonies after WW II. We supported the collaborators in the country in not holding elections because they would have been soundly defeated. Also, I learned that the Vietnamese and the Chinese had fought for centuries and the Vietnamese wanted independence.

If I leaned this how come McNamara and the cabinet did not know this? The answer is that of course they knew this. It is disingenuous for McNamara to have acted surprised when in 1995 the Vietnamese told him this.

The reason we went to war then and many times before and afterwards are because of arrogance and hubris. And because we could. We have weaponry that can devastate countries.

At the end of the film McNamara looked like an old NAZI with his cross of freedom earned serving the interests of power. Indeed he would be considered a war criminal not only for his involvement in Japan in WW II but also for his involvement in Vietnam.

When he talks about human nature – I don't think he needs to be concerned about the human nature of average Americans or others but of the arrogance of leaders that are intoxicated with power.

If you have seen the Vietnam War memorial in Washington. And have walked from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol then consider - if McNamara' estimate of 3.4 million Vietnamese dead is correct then and we put their names on a wall - the wall would be nearly 60 times longer then the present wall and would extend from the Lincoln memorial to the capitol building and back again. Now that is a holocaust. Similar to the Germans if we do not admit the holocaust we will repeat it and we are in Iraq.
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Another distinctive masterwork from Morris
dean23723 October 2003
Errol Morris has always been fascinated with characters that make excuses for their past offences. In Mr. Death, he pointed his famous, intimacy-capturing Interratron camera at a specialist in capital punishment who was trying to construct the kinder, gentler electric chair before he was unknowingly duped by hubris-exploiting white supremacists into proving-in his mind and theirs-that the Jewish Holocaust never happened. What makes The Fog of War so amazing, and so perfect for our times, is the fact that it sympathetically examines Robert S. McNamara, leader of a World War II raid on Tokyo that killed 100,000 people, the man who claims that he introduced safety features like seat belts to the Ford Motor company (even though it was probably the eventually-crushed Preston Tucker who did this), and was the often hawkish Secretary of Defense under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations (and therefore both advised on the saving of the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the destruction of it during the Vietnam War). Morris unerringly points his camera at a man who, at the end of his life, is making a serious reevaluation of his world-changing actions, and is sincerely worried, moved to think, that he may have made the wrong choices.

In this way, it makes a perfect companion piece to many of the films at the New York Film Festival this year. Richard Pena, the festival's programmer, is known to make his politics obvious in his and his jury's choices, and this year, in the midst of this country's and, unfortunately, his world's often dubious moral selections, he is wondering if the paths we are taking are the correct ones. Over and over again, particularly in the movies that I chose to see at the festival, is seems that the theme is `We better think, and think hard, about what we are doing, because it is just that which will determine what we will do in the future' Of course, this isn't all up to Pena-it's obviously a theme the filmmakers are they themselves coming to. We are on the verge of a new era in moviemaking, and the concerns of it are before us in these works at the 41st New York Film Festival. Morris' The Fog of War made me realize this.

At the press conference after the film, Morris stated that he began this film before the events of 9/11 visited us. He also admitted, when one journalist asked him if he liked Robert S. McNamara, that, yes, he did indeed like him, amazingly, even though Morris actively demonstrated against his policies during the 1960s. If anything proves the remittable side of truly progressive minds, this does. Here, on film, is forgiveness towards a once apparently inhuman human that, at one point, from the filmmaker's perspective, seemed impossible to achieve. The Fog of War is a document of understanding, of compassion, of repentance, reflection and humanism. Edited with quicksilver style, scored with Philip Glass' unmistakable tonal existential dread, and photographed with peculiar beauty (Morris admitted some of his favorite shots of the film involve padded skulls being dropped from great heights, all in the service of illustrating McNamara's obsession with greater car safety), it's a masterpiece just as are the rest of Morris' career works.
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6/10
Disappointing
TooShortforThatGesture15 March 2005
I don't quite understand the high rating for this film. It felt very ordinary to me.

McNamara is obviously a bright guy and leaves one hopeful that old age does not always cause a reduction in ones mental faculties. (Or, alternatively, that if you start out with a whole big lot of mental faculties, you're still gonna seem smart at 85, even if you've lost some.) Other than that inadvertent point, however, the documentary doesn't really tell a reasonably well-informed viewer much that one doesn't already know. McNamara is wise enough to recognize that he had an important role in the Vietnam debacle, but canny enough not to volunteer to take on more responsibility than he can comfortably shoulder. His conversations have the feel of having been well-honed in many an academic debate and cocktail-party social hour. Nothing too gruesome, nothing too righteous and always willing to acknowledge (with a genial smile) the possibility that he is wrong.

The frustration is that McNamara refuses to engage in any discussion of the moral/personal issues raised by his actions and that the interviewer lets McNamara get away with this refusal. Ultimately, therefore, the film sometimes feels like little more than an "insider-y" history of the war, narrated by a sort of "war celebrity." Ultimately, what's the point? I suppose McNamara has the right to keep his own counsel as to his personal feelings (and as to what was going on with his family -- he hints at all sorts of problems, including a FIRM assertion that all of his family benefited from his move into government...that just cries out that the opposite was the case) but if he's not going to open up, what we're left with feels like something one could have read more quickly in a magazine article.

The other problem with the film is that it ends up feeling both over-edited and padded with endless clips of bombs falling and meaningless close-up shots of tiny bits of text ("houses destroyed", "troop strength", "warmonger" etc. etc.) that are clearly there just to add color, with no real value of their own. The interview feels stretched-out and the "11 lessons" feel forced into the film as a pretty arbitrary framing device...they certainly weren't part of McNamara's thinking and they don't really help organize the material.

Still, this isn't a complete waste of time. McNamara is an engaging speaker and it is interesting to hear some of the thought processes of one of the "best and brightest" who has run large parts of US policy for a long time. But the film stops well short of being great.
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