Conflict Of Interest: One Film, Two Takes

'Fog of War' Reveals a Master of Defense in Combat with Himself

By Terri Sutton

Documentarian Errol Morris has long exhibited a fascination with death, and with killers in particular. The body count keeps rising even as his killers move further away from the bodies. The Thin Blue Line's fair-haired, smiling boy shot two men for getting in his way. The protagonist of Mr. Death, execution engineer Fred A. Leuchter, tried to "humanize" corporal punishment--and, by the way, disprove the Holocaust. Now The Fog of War tackles "rational" 20th-century warfare through the eyes of a man, Robert S. McNamara, whose orders resulted in millions of Vietnamese casualties and at least 25,000 U.S. deaths.

The nominees for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role are...: Robert S. McNamara (left) and Robert S. McNamara (right) in 'The Fog of War'
Sony Pictures Classics
The nominees for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role are...: Robert S. McNamara (left) and Robert S. McNamara (right) in 'The Fog of War'

McNamara--Harvard biz school professor, president of Ford Motor at 44, U.S. defense secretary under JFK and Lyndon Johnson--certainly tops any of Morris's other killers for sophistication and smarts. Yet the articulate, vigorous 85-year-old is as defensive about his participation in killing as any of them. He tries to explain it as part of a story--say, the story of an ambitious, accomplished man who made mistakes, as anyone does. He tries to absolve it by offering advice of the hard-earned variety: He contradicts it. He holds others responsible. He deflects questioning. What rattles his tale, what makes it so involving, is that this killer, this human, also sincerely attempts to understand war, and to wonder if there can be morality in killing. The effort visibly fractures McNamara: At least in this movie, he can't resolve his parts, his pasts.

McNamara's was one of the few government-associated voices raised against Bush's unilateral invasion of Iraq. He said then, as he says here, "If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we better reexamine our reasoning." Since McNamara published his 1995 memoir In Retrospect, it has been tempting to paint him as a repentant hawk bent on a world safe for doves. The truth, as Morris presents it, is more complicated. Every 10 minutes in The Fog of War, McNamara asks an essential question for our times: What makes extreme behavior in war immoral if you lose and acceptable if you win? How can we understand our enemies' motivations so that we're not making up crises? And every 10 minutes, McNamara sticks his boot in it with an ego-serving claim or qualification.

The Fog of War has attracted controversy, I think, because McNamara is not only its subject but its only talking head. Morris provides vintage footage and recordings, etc., but no other witness for or against. Maybe McNamara demanded the one-on-one scenario. Morris himself has said, "This has been a dream of mine, to make a movie with one person. There's no attempt at what we consider journalistic balance...You're forced to think about that person and what he's thinking and why he's thinking it. You're forced to do things that you can normally avoid doing because you're always on the outside, often being told what to think."

One of those things the viewer "can normally avoid doing" is having to figure out where this particular subject is skating around the facts. Fred Kaplan's recent essay in Slate convincingly argues that McNamara fudges JFK's willingness to give up a military advantage to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis, and that he obscures U.S. military aggressiveness in the Gulf of Tonkin episode. If McNamara (or Morris) is interested in critiquing the current administration's tendency to dismiss diplomacy and embrace aggressiveness, these evasions don't help.

However, I did feel that Morris had given me fair warning not to completely trust McNamara's persona. In the first scene, McNamara is stage-managing Morris, telling the director what he will and won't say. Soon after, Morris highlights vintage press criticism of McNamara being labeled a "con man." McNamara attributes the World War II firebombing of Japanese cities--in which 50 to 90 percent of the civilians in 67 Japanese cities died--to Air Force General Curtis LeMay, under whom he served as an "efficiency" expert. "I don't want to suggest that it was my report that led to [it]," says McNamara; meanwhile, Morris is spotlighting McNamara's signature on a sequence of bombing analyses. When McNamara outright blames Johnson for Vietnam, Morris cuts to black and holds it for a long moment, as if he can't believe the man's nerve.

Yet, to his credit, it's McNamara who pushes the discussion toward dicier subjects (e.g., the use of Agent Orange) and who questions U.S. motives (if not his own). And to his credit, Morris keeps reminding the viewer that these abstractions cost lives: He movingly overlays street-scene footage to suggest the ghostly outlines of those lost as a result of the decisions made by McNamara and his associates. Indeed, as usual, Morris has made a movie at once deeply disturbing and beautiful.

In an epilogue, we finally see the back of McNamara's head, nearly bare and fragile. McNamara notes earlier that 7,500 nuclear warheads are always ready to be launched "on the decision of one human being." I knew the weight of this option was insane, but now I see that it is insane-making. McNamara concludes that war cannot be understood rationally. Morris leaves me with a couple of questions. Do we accept McNamara's standard of rationality? And what is our standard, we who demand that a few individuals bear the burden of annihilation for us all?

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