The Fog of War (2003)

Directed by Errol Morris

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Robert McNamara is a confusing figure, at least I think he is.  By the time he passed was he a villain or something of a reformed convict?  Based on what I saw in Spielberg’s The Post he was one of the main problems behind the Vietnam War.  He did nothing to de-escalate the situation, and his actions led to the losses of thousands of lives.  Errol Morris’ documentary doesn’t exactly refute this, but it does paint a more nuanced portrait of the former Secretary of Defense.

McNamara served under two different presidents following his appointment by John F. Kennedy, and The Fog of War details his life story, more or less.  The documentary is filtered through the lens of McNamara’s own testimony, though the editing of the film presents at least an attempt to keep him honest.

Going into the film I expected Morris to take McNamara down, pointing out that he’s just a ruthless killer behind a desk, and the discussion of McNamara’s role in the second world war encourages this idea.  Pretty soon, though, the story takes a turn, and Morris even begins to empathize with this figure.

McNamara was pragmatic and dedicated to efficiency.  His role in the army during World War II boiled down to making it easier to kill the “enemy” on bombing raids.  As he says, quite candidly, the U.S. dropped many, many bombs even before the big ones on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though no one really talks about this.

McNamara’s surprising openness at first suggests a complete disregard for his role in the killing, but by the end he makes it clear he knows very well what happened.  McNamara was never the solution, but he was hardly the problem, and taped recordings, particularly with Lyndon Johnson, show how he was eager to pull the U.S. out of the war, at least at a certain point.  His real crime was keeping quiet and following orders.

The documentary’s title comes from something McNamara says regarding the huge gray area of war.  As he himself says, he and his commanding officers would have been charged with war crimes had the U.S. not been on the winning side of the second world war.  And McNamara’s life postwar and pre-secretary of defense make him seem like just another dude, even a good one.  He’s a man who knew how to do his job, and his job just so happened to include killing hundreds of thousands of people, at least indirectly.

The point of all this is that war is stupid, hard to understand, and often escalated by people with not enough information or too much irrationality behind their thinking.  In one case with Vietnam, a bombing raid was ordered by President Johnson following the misconception that U.S. submarines were attacked with torpedoes.  There is a recording of the conversation between generals regarding this incident, and it’s clear no one really knew what happened.  Still, the U.S. acted on the assumption that it had been attacked, only making things worse.

I completely forgot, but the documentary is structured by 11 lessons McNamara offers regarding warfare.  If you see McNamara as a villainous figure, these 11 lessons would come across as facetious, just a structural technique for Morris to undercut McNamara’s own decisions and paint him as a hypocrite.  Instead the lessons prove quite insightful, and McNamara’s plea to avoid future violence comes across as quite sincere.

The documentary was released in 2003 during the Iraq War, a fight which, like Vietnam, was based on misinformation.  In a talk at UC Berkeley (of which both Morris and McNamara are alumni), the two men discuss the similarities between Vietnam and Iraq.  During the discussion you can see just how passionate McNamara was, arguing that we should have learned much more from the failure of the Vietnam War.

I’m fascinated by the Vietnam War but know pretty little about it.  I know more about the perception of the war, the anger and mistrust of the government, etc, but I know very little about the facts of the war.  Movies like PlatoonFull Metal JacketApocalypse Now and Born on the Fourth of July depict the simple madness of war in a way that most WW2 films don’t.  The earlier war makes for good cinema because it’s us vs. them, good vs. evil.  I mean, we literally fought the Nazis, so it’s pretty clear we must have been the good guys.

This isn’t the case in Vietnam, and the failure there is fascinating, at least from a historical context.  It’s also quite fascinating and maddening that many of the same problems/lying got us into the Iraq War.

Hal Ashby made a film called The Last Detail about soldiers serving during the Vietnam War, though they remain stateside throughout the film.  The movie was based on a novel of the same name by Darryl Ponicsan who then wrote a follow up called Last Flag Flying following the same characters, all grown up, and set during the Iraq War.  The novel was adapted into Richard Linklater’s 2017 movie of the same name, and while it focuses on entirely new characters, they might as well be the same people.  The point of the two stories, I suppose, is to connect both the Vietnam and Iraq wars.  The theme of the first movie is the unjustness of one soldier’s plight, and you can take that as a theme of the entire war.  The second story concerns the effort by three former soldiers to return home the casket of one soldier who was killed in action in Iraq.  Later into the story you realize that he was killed by friendly fire, only adding to the theme of the madness, unfairness and ridiculousness of battle.  He died serving his country, but his death was preventable.

Last thing to address is how Morris shot the film.  Like his previous works, the subject makes eye contact with the viewer.  In his earlier films, the people on camera would look directly at Morris as he tried to get them to open up, and Morris sat as close to the camera as possible to make it seem like they were looking at us.  The effect of this is to make the subject open up (to Morris) but still address us.  In The Fog of War he accomplishes this through the invention of a device called the “interrotron.”  It’s a series of mirrors and other gadgets that allows the subject and the director to look directly at each other while also letting the subject look directly into the camera, not unlike a teleprompter.  This allows Morris to sit further away and yet work to achieve as intimate a setting on set as he has in his other films.  The result isn’t quite devastating, but it feels invasive.  The camera cuts in during several moments as McNamara nearly shouts about some aspect of the war, almost as if he is accusing us of something.

Up Next: Platoon (1986), The Big Red One (1980), Morvern Callar (2002)

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