The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from Robert S. McNamara
Documentary by Errol Morris
Theatrical release: December 2003; available on DVD
As the 2003 Academy Award Winner for Best Documentary Feature, this chronicle of politics and war in the last half of the 20th century — as seen through the eyes of Robert S. McNamara, U. S. Secretary of Defense under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson — is a chilling reminder of what may lie ahead in the 21st, if we don't remember and learn from our mistakes as well as our successes. At age 85, McNamara looks at his role in many of our historical turning points, both military and political, and raises moral questions we would do well to examine in detail.
The filmmakers gained extraordinary access to archival film footage, video clips, and newly declassified White House audio tapes from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Rather than replay the presumed public persona of McNamara as the rational, unfeeling king of statistical process control who drove us into Vietnam, we see and hear a more nuanced man, one who struggles with important moral questions as he tries to support two very different presidents and their divergent priorities for Southeast Asia and the United States presence there. The film is a visual collage of historical and contemporary images mixed with look-you-in-the-eye interview comments from McNamara. Audio clips of the White House tapes are subtitled to ensure the message gets through the static.
I once heard a reviewer comment that it was probably no surprise McNamara picked Errol Morris for this project. The film gets its power in no small way from Morris' visual style and his approach to interviewing. But even by documentary filmmaking standards, Errol Morris is a quirky one. In 2000 and 2001, he produced two seasons of interviews for cable television, titled First Person, initially for Bravo and then for the Independent Film Channel. One of his subjects was Temple Grandin, an autistic woman and animal rights advocate who designs humane slaughterhouses. His Gates of Heaven feature-length film examined the business of pet cemetaries. And A Brief History of Time presented Steven Hawking on camera as accompaniment to his best-selling book.
Morris invented a gadget he calls the "interrotron" to help his subjects maintain eye contact with the camera lens. A "system of modified TelePrompTers," the equipment projects an image of Morris in such a way that his subjects can address him as if he's inside the camera lens. As you'll see in The Fog of War, the result creates an intimate connection between subject and viewer. Although you occasionally hear Morris voice a question, McNamara talks directly to you, as if you were in the room with him.
The website for the film contains an amazing amount of material, including links to background information and a great set of lesson plans for instructors (or any of us).
As our collective memory fades relative to the people and situations of World War II, the Korean Conflict, the Vietnam War, and Watergate, Morris chronicles the life and actions of a major player in these events. If you want a better understanding of how the American government justifies the use of military force, watch The Fog of War.