Movie Review by Stephen Doyle
Starring: Robert McNamara
Director: Errol Morris
THE FOG OF WAR is the new documentary from the highly revered Errol Morris. It charts the eventful though controversial life of US statesman Robert S McNamara, who found himself at the centre of pivotal moments of modern history – the US bombing of Japan in 1945, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and America’s unpopular and overdrawn involvement in Vietnam.
The documentary is made up of one long interview with the 85 year-old himself – no other interviews are conducted for the film. The interview is spliced with a breathtaking level of research which includes archive footage, photographs, newspaper articles, official statistical reports and, most fascinating of all, secret recordings of private exchanges between powerful figures of the time including JFK, Lyndon Johnson and McNamara himself. It should also be noted that almost the entire film is accompanied by a fantastic atmospheric score from Phillip Glass.
THE FOG OF WAR works well as a biography, as it charts both the internal and external life of the complex but undeniably talented McNamara with great skill. It includes all the big events of his remarkable life, including his humble beginnings, his promotion to becoming the first president of the Ford motor company who was not a member of the Ford family, and then the unexpected offer from President Kennedy to become his foreign secretary. THE FOG OF WAR also succeeds as an illuminating historical document. For students of modern warfare or modern history, this film is near unmissable, as it sheds revealing new light on the much discussed topics of Vietnam, Cuba and so on.
A further reason that THE FOG OF WAR is to be admired is because of its discourses on the complex moral implications of war. This, indeed, is what the title refers to – that the ethics of warfare are never clear, but rather are surrounded in a dense fog. Questions such as when is it right to go to war, when is it right to kill innocent people and to what extent does the end justify the means, are posed. In a shocking moment of honesty McNamara says that if America had lost World War II then he and Colonel Lemay would have been arrested as war criminals for the number of bombs they dropped on Japan and the number of people they killed. Instead the Allies were victorious, and McNamara and Lemay were feted as heroes.
There was really only one thing I disliked about this movie and that was its somewhat confusing tone. For no apparent reason, rather than present this film as biography or history, it is presented in the form of 11 lessons from McNamara. Each lesson is like a chapter, it is written on the screen and then expounded for a number of minutes before the film moves on to the next lesson/chapter. The trite lessons include – to always maximise efficiency, to never trust what you see or believe, and other such banalities. So what should be a gripping historical narrative is instead confusingly presented as a self-help manual of a film. Furthermore it is never made clear whether Morris genuinely believes in these 11 lessons or whether they are presented ironically. It is also not made clear whose idea it was to formulate the lessons – whether Morris edited the interview afterwards, without McNamara’s knowledge, into these 11 lessons, or whether it was McNamara’s wish to see the film thus divided.