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The Fog of War

(2003) *** 1/2 Pg-13
106 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Errol Morris. Cast: Robert S. McNamara, Robert McNamara, Fidel Castro, Barry Goldwater, Lyndon Johnson.

In the midst of the latest bout of global unrest, Errol Morris's documentary The Fog of War seems as much a glimpse of our future as a document of the present and a reflection of the past. This in-depth, feature-length interview of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara lets the controversial figure tell his own story in his own words, as prompted, heard, arranged, and addressed by Morris in visual metaphors (such as numbers dropping from the sky like bombs). Morris puts McNamara in front of his infamous Interrotron device--which uses the teleprompter model to allow a subject to see an image of their interviewer while looking directly into the camera--and the effect is hypnotic. Over hypnotic Philip Glass music, McNamara points his finger, equivocates, and addresses his role in morally questionable foreign policies of the past.

As a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air Force in the '40s, McNamara was privy to the thought processes of General Curtis LeMay, architect of a bombing campaign which claimed nearly a million Japanese civilians well before the dropping of the atomic bomb. Later, at the behest of John F. Kennedy, McNamara became the youngest man ever named to the post of Secretary of Defense, and held a ringside seat for the Cuban Missile Crisis. Under Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, McNamara influenced foreign policy while remaining beholden to the Presidents' designs in Vietnam. Throughout his life, McNamara cast a long shadow in the business world, first on the faculty of the Harvard Business School, later as president of the Ford Motor Company, and later still as President of the World Bank.

In the process of surveying McNamara's life, Morris touches all of the bases but focuses on the terror inherent on both sides of foreign policy decisions: the terrible power of American policymakers and the fatalistic vulnerability of hapless civilians whose lives hang in the balance of arguments in the halls of power. Now, McNamara suggests that LeMay qualifies as a war criminal, acknowledges the dumb luck which got us into and out of the missile crisis ("Rationality will not save us" goes the lesson), and laments his inability to sell an earlier withdrawal from Vietnam (a frustrated McNamara resigned from the cabinet in 1968, a month before U.S. bombing cutbacks and five years before the end of the war).

Morris seduces a revelatory frankness from McNamara, who avoids overt self-criticism but betrays guilt at unnecessary casualties of war. Morris subtitles his film "Eleven Lessons of Robert S. McNamara," and indeed, his subject comes off as a wizened professor of war ethics. Lessons like "Empathize with your enemy" and "Proportionality should be a guideline in war" preach seemingly basic principles of caution before apocalyptic response. "Belief and seeing are both often wrong" frames a discussion of the Gulf of Tonkin debacle in which a "second attack"--apparently imagined by American patrol boats--triggered our initial reprisal bombings of Vietnam. Collectively, Morris and McNamara seem to agree that humankind is hard-wired for conflict, and we are doomed to repeat history. "At my age, 85," McNamara explains, "I'm at [an] age where I can look back and derive some conclusions about my actions. My rule has been to try to learn, try to understand what happened. Develop the lessons and pass them on." Morris chose as good a time as any to provide his vehicle for discussion.

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