The Fog Of War tells the story of Robert S. McNamara - a man who rose from humble origins to reach the heights of political power. In Errol Morris’s iconic and Oscar winning documentary McNamara recounts the key chapters - both personal and professional - in his life.
It is absolutely fascinating to hear McNamara’s recollections. He was both a witness to and a key participant in many of the most important events of the 20th century - including the US Depression in the 1930s, the industrialization of the war years and the development of a new kind of warfare based upon air power.
The documentary is structured around eleven lessons that Morris believes we can learn from McNamara's experiences:
Lesson 1: Empathise With Your Enemy
Lesson 2: Rationality Will Not Save Us
Lesson 3: There’s Something Beyond One’s Self
Lesson 4: Maximise Efficiency
Lesson 6: Get The Data
Lesson Seven: Belief And Seeing Are Both Often Wrong
Lesson Eight: Be Prepared To Reexamine Your Reasoning
Lesson Nine: In Order To Do Good, You May Have To Engage In Evil
Lesson Ten: Never Say Never
Lesson Eleven: You Can’t Change Human Nature
Morris encourages McNamara - at the time aged 85 - to discuss many themes central to war and politics. These include questions about the moral justification of violence in war, how to avoid the escalation of a conflict, why things can go so very wrong and how to deal with different personalities in politics.
For example, McNamara recalls his experience of controversial US General, Curtis LeMay, and talks about the firebombing of 67 Japanese cities in 1945. Before the US dropped the two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, LeMay’s B-29 bombers had already killed nearly one million Japanese civilians.
McNamara considers the disturbing moral questions inherent in his role (and the entire Allied effort) in winning the war against Japan “by any means necessary”. Were the Allied forces justified in their actions? Did this horrific bombing campaign save more lives than it took?
The Fog Of War also features a remarkable account of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The story that McNamara tells is not one of heroism in the face of nuclear holocaust. No, McNamara tells a tale of blind luck and empathy. “At the end we lucked out,” he explains. “It was luck that prevented nuclear war. Rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies.”
McNamara is, of course, a divisive figure. In The Fog Of War, he attempts to explain his reasoning, to assess his part in history (particularly with regard to the war in Vietnam). He does not try to rewrite the events in which he played a significant role. Instead (and refreshingly) he tries to pass on just what his experience has taught him - both good and bad, right and wrong.
McNamara’s recollections about and assessment of the Cuban Missile Crisis is utterly fascinating. “In the Cuban missile crisis, at the end, I think we did put ourselves in the skin of the Soviets. In the case of Vietnam, we didn’t know them well enough to empathise. And there was total misunderstanding as a result. They believed that we had simply replaced the French as a colonial power, and we were seeking to subject South and North Vietnam to our colonial interests, which was absolutely absurd. And we, we saw Vietnam as an element of the Cold War. Not what they saw it as: a civil war.”
We often hear Morris questioning McNamara from behind the camera via the interrotron technology that director developed to allow his subjects to look directly into the camera when responding. It is a startling technique and one that creates a feeling of intimacy between the interviewee, the director and the audience.
During the documentary (which was the result of more than 25 hours of interviews) Morris explores the public’s perception of McNamara - he was often viewed as arrogant, almost like an unfeeling computer.
This is not the man we see in The Fog Of War (he becomes visibly emotional when talking about the death of President Kennedy) and it is not the man we hear on taped telephone conversations from the Oval Office of the White House with President Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson.
In the film, we hear McNamara explaining to John F Kennedy that there is a need to set a timetable for removing advisors from Vietnam. After Kennedy’s assasination, we hear Johnson criticising McNamara for imparting this advice.
Meanwhile, we hear McNamara urging Johnson to begin the cessation of US bombing in North Vietnam and, when Johnson disagrees, then we hear McNamara endorsing the President’s wish to continue the war.
Whatever your thoughts about McNamara and whether we can trust his recollections, The Fog Of War is undeniably gripping and often deeply moving - particularly when combined with Morris’s selection of archive footage, images and another stunning score (after The Thin Blue Line) from composer Philip Glass.
After redefining the true crime documentary genre in The Thin Blue Line, Morris created one of the most iconic films about war.
War Documentary Recommendations
The Fog Of War is part of the war sub-genre of Documentary 7. If you enjoyed this movie, I would also recommend:
My honourable mentions include The Unknown Known, Dirty Wars, 5 Broken Cameras and Hell and Back Again.
Do you have any war documentaries that you would like to recommend? If so, do share them in the comments section below or over on Twitter. You can find me @500DaysOfFilm.