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A review of Fog of War

click to enlarge Former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara
  • Former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara

The Fog of War (PG-13)
Sony Picture Classics

The Fog of War, winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, less a film than it is a conversation between America and itself. True, it is history and documentary. And yes, it is the Cold War reborn in the aged face of former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. But The Fog of War is really about America's past mixing with its present and the questions of American power. These questions, revealed by the purported architect of the Vietnam War, are the same today as they were then: At what cost does the United States wage war? And, who determines the righteousness of that cost?

During McNamara's seven years as secretary of defense, from 1960 to 1967, under presidents Kennedy and Johnson, the United States came to the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union on three separate occasions. Cold War? Hell, says McNamara, it was Hot War.

McNamara's recollections in The Fog of War are not the war stories of an ordinary man. These are the stories of a man who sent thousands of others to earn war stories of their own and who sent millions of others to their violent deaths.

McNamara's own story, as seen through the lens of documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, is broken into "11 Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara." The chronology is skewed, jumping from the 1990s, to World War II, to Vietnam, back to World War II, back to the 1990s, and finally, back to Vietnam. But the lessons remain the same.

During World War II, McNamara served in the Air Force under the notorious Gen. Curtis LeMay, and he helped to plan the fire-bombings of numerous Japanese cities, including Tokyo, where as many as 100,000 men, women, and children burned to death in a single night. As McNamara recounts these events, scenes of the bombings and names of American cities flash across the screen. Here, McNamara lays himself bare, admitting that he, and others, acted as war criminals.

When McNamara turns the conversation to Vietnam, his reportage resembles the social cataclysm that characterized the Vietnam War -- evading the most difficult questions and providing insightful, sometimes shocking revelations to others.

At 85, McNamara is obviously still torn apart by the effects of Vietnam. Indeed, he lacks the emotional faculties with which to speak about many of them. At once forthright and guarded, he becomes the American contradiction embodied in a man considered to be the "architect" of the war, who wished he could have done more to stop it.

Lest the conversation be dictated solely by McNamara, Morris continually removes the audience from the comforts of historical distance by flashing a barrage of images across the screen -- newspaper clippings from a tormented, angry society; archival footage of men in black suits pulling at the tangled strings of warfare; and images of riots, protests and death that America will never forget and that make you feel like you were there.

Therein lies the genius of Morris' cinematography. The Fog of War is not solely the memories of an 85-year-old man. In a mixture of past and present where the lines are of righteousness are blurred, an eerie, unnerving patchwork of warnings is exposed. If you listen closely, replacing the word "communists" with "terrorists," you can almost hear our leaders talking today.

The lessons of Robert S. McNamara are as unsettling as they are real. Nothing in the film is reconciled: not the man, not the wars, not the country. Instead, the American conversation about war continues in some ethereal space between past and present, between history and uncertainty, and ultimately, fails to emerge from the fog.

-- Benjamin Glahn

Kimball's Twin Peak

  • A review of Fog of War

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