Robert McNamara and The Fog Of War

mcnamaraThe recent death of Robert S. McNamara – the embattled former Secretary of Defense and chief architect of the Vietnam War under both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations – gave me cause to revisit the 2004 Errol Morris film The Fog Of War: Eleven Lessons From The Life Of Robert S. McNamara. The film is essentially a one-on-one sit down with McNamara (Morris appears only as a disembodied voice) on the subject of war – and ultimately the impossibility of being able to predict, with complete accuracy, the path that war will take (hence the ‘fog’). I had forgotten what an arresting film this is, both as a remarkable biographical documentation of a man who remains among the most hated figures in the history of U.S. politics, and as a portrait of someone who caused (either directly or indirectly) an enormous amount of hurt in his lifetime and has come, now near the end of it, to reevaluate what he has done. In many ways it is Morris’s most academic film, as its step-by-step presentation of McNamara’s testimony feels at times like a finely-tuned, scrupulously informed college lecture. But Morris also has a knack for pushing his subjects just far enough out of their comfort zones – his questions, when we do get to overhear them, are blunt and poignant without coming off as callous or insensitive. One of his greatest strengths as a documentary film maker has always been, in my opinion, that he seems able to establish a certain rapport with his interviewees without compromising his own journalistic integrity. His subjects rarely seem defensive. And while many of McNamara’s answers sidestep the greater moral questions of his legacy, there are a number of moments when he does actually break down, overcome with emotion. Throughout, he appears lucid and extremely bright, despite his advanced age, and the entire film is loaded with fascinating political anecdotes from his time in office. That he struggled with the legacy of a terrible war is evident; it is to Morris’s credit, however, that he refrains from over-editorializing McNamara’s side of the story, and that he maintains the film’s focus on the nature of war, and the lessons that McNamara seems to genuinely want to impart. The film’s powerful epilogue paints a haunting portrait of McNamara and the legacy of the Vietnam War: that this man, who had a greater role than any other in the war’s design and execution, is left hollowed out and nearly broken in its wake.

UPDATE: Check out Errol Morris’s blog post on the legacy of Robert McNamara, “McNamara in Context.”

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