#406) The Fog of War (2003)
OR “What About Bob?”
Directed by Errol Morris
Class of 2019
Robert McNamara is a very complex figure in U.S. history, as are the wars he participated in. A short write-up about a 2 hour movie can only scratch the surface, so please don’t let this post be your only resource on any of these topics.
The Plot: Controversial political figure Robert McNamara looks directly into Errol Morris’ camera to discuss his life and career, specifically his time as Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Topics covered include his data analysis for the Air Force during World War II, his tenure as one of the Ford Motor Company’s “Whiz Kids”, his resolution to John Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis, and his clashes with Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War. Errol Morris centers his conversations with McNamara around 11 “lessons” that could be applied to, hypothetically speaking, an unpopular war in Iraq we may or may not have been engaging in during the film’s production.
Why It Matters: The NFR gives a thorough rundown of McNamara, and calls Errol Morris an “idiosyncratic documentary filmmaker”. The write-up highlights reviewers who find the film “riveting”, as well as those who are critical of the film’s “selective presentation” of events.
But Does It Really?: As the man who broke the mold of modern documentary, Errol Morris is allowed more than one NFR entry. “Fog of War” covers a lot of the same ground as other films on this list (WWII, the Kennedy presidency, the Vietnam War), but it does so from the perspective of someone who was there. It also discusses these events with the added subtext of the impending Iraq War, an era we are unfortunately reflecting upon quite a bit these days. McNamara is an engaging subject (even when you completely disagree with his motives), and Morris keeps the pace up to prevent this from becoming 110 minutes of an 85-year-old man talking at you. It’s a little too early to call “Fog of War” a classic, but I welcome its inclusion on the list.
Title Track: McNamara defines “fog of war” near the end of the film: “War is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate.”
Seriously Oscars?: “Fog of War” did something no Errol Morris movie has done before or since: it won an Oscar. Morris thanked the Academy “for finally recognizing my films”, and pleaded with Americans to “reflect on some of the ideas and issues in this movie” in order to avoid another war. Host Billy Crystal responded with “I can’t wait for his tax audit. Scary times.”
- For starters, shoutout to me! In my “Thin Blue Line” write-up, I predicted that “Fog of War” would make the National Film Registry “eventually”. Granted I have made such predictions for many NFR hopefuls in the last three years, but damn it, this time I was right!
- Errol Morris became interested in interviewing Robert McNamara after reading his 2001 book “Wilson’s Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing, and Catastrophe in the 21st Century”. McNamara’s interview was originally intended to be an episode of Morris’ PBS series “First Person”, but after several days of interviews and 20 hours of footage, Morris realized he had enough material for a feature-length documentary.
- Though not invented for “Fog of War”, the film utilizes Errol Morris’ Interrotron. Much like how a teleprompter displays words in front of a camera lens, the Interrotron displays a live feed of the interviewer, so that the interviewee can respond to the questions while looking directly into the camera. Morris pioneered this interviewing tactic for what he calls “true first person”. The name came from Morris’ wife Julia Sheehan, by jokingly combining the words “interview” and “terror”.
- The most challenging part of this movie is watching someone enthusiastically talk about their problem solving skills when the result was the death of millions of innocent civilians. Sure, McNamara stopped World War Three from happening by empathizing with Castro, but he also awkwardly sidesteps his involvement in the Tokyo Bombings of 1945. This movie is challenging you to see the complexities of a man you can easily write off as a war criminal.
- The bombing sequence includes the names of Japanese cities being replaced by comparable American cities to give a context to just how massive this destruction was. It made me feel the weight of what we did in WWII more effectively than almost any other movie on the subject.
- All this devastation AND he helped invent the seat belt? What won’t you let me just hate this guy?
- Like “Thin Blue Line”, Morris utilizes a variety of visual aids to punch up subject matter that is more verbal than visual. Throughout the film Morris illustrates his points with newspaper headlines, graphs, data; he even shows dominoes falling over a map of Asia to visualize the “domino theory” of Communism.
- Wait, McNamara used the phrase “hearts and minds” too? I thought LBJ said it first. Whose talking point is it?
- Interestingly enough, once the movie focuses on the Vietnam War, McNamara’s presence is covered primarily by archival interviews and footage. Where’d you go, 2003 Bob? That being said, McNamara wrote an entire book pointing out in great detail how the US mishandled Vietnam and its people.
- “Answer the question you wished had been asked.” If that’s not Politics 101, I don’t know what is.
- This movie’s big question is, of course, should we sympathize with McNamara? On one hand, he seems genuinely sorrowful while discussing some of the more fatal aspects of his career. On the other hand, he’s had 35 years and countless interviews to hone his responses. Even at 85, McNamara seems to still be grappling with some of it, straight up refusing to answer some of Morris’ questions (“You don’t know what I know”).
- While being interviewed for the film’s release, McNamara refused to apply his 11 lessons to Iraq, stating they were meant in general terms and not in reference to a specific war. As the war progressed, however, McNamara became more candid about his disapproval, and met with George W. Bush (along with other former Secretaries of Defense) in 2006 to discuss the war. McNamara died in 2009 at the age of 93.
- Errol Morris is still cranking out a new documentary every few years. His most recent is “American Dharma”, a film centered around another controversial political figure…gah! Steve Bannon! Hide the kids!
Further Viewing: The early 2000s inadvertently gave us a Robert McNamara Double Feature. 2001’s “Thirteen Days” tackled the Cuban Missile Crisis, while the 2002 TV Movie “Path to War” chronicled Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War. McNamara is played in the former by Dylan Baker and the latter by Alec Baldwin.