Conflict Of Interest: One Film, Two Takes

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

'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.

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?


Errol Morris Fails to See Robert McNamara Through the 'Fog'

By Matthew Wilder

In Sophocles' Ajax, the hero, one of the most valiant of Greek leaders to have served at Troy, is denied the promotion he deserves and deceived by the goddess Athena's "darkening of his mind" into believing that the Greek army's livestock are, in fact, his political enemies. One of the most shocking moments in Greek drama occurs when we discover Ajax sitting stunned amid the carcasses of slaughtered sheep. The terror of the play comes in

Ajax's slow-dawning realization of what he has done, and the alternately candid, defiant, and deluded tactics he uses to deal with the knowledge. Ajax finally falls on his sword, and the devastating irony of the play comes in its long duration after his death, as those unworthy to judge him--many of them superior in rank--consider what to do with his legacy.

Robert S. McNamara's 1996 book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam provokes some of the same emotions as Ajax. In it, we discover a McNamara who's relentlessly, pitilessly rational: the efficiency expert who became president of the Ford Motor Company and transplanted his devotion to quantifiable performance improvements from the world of sales to the theater of war. In my youth, the conventional wisdom was that McNamara was an establishment wonk leading the easily gulled LBJ down a blind alley, a white-shoe number-cruncher who couldn't admit he had made a mistake. And there is no doubt that McNamara is that character--but from the evidence offered in In Retrospect, McNamara is a latter-day Ajax as well. The book's McNamara is a complex admixture of idealism, ambition, and willful blindness who tells himself that if he quits or offends Johnson, he'll be replaced by a hard-liner (or an intellectual inferior). He contents himself with dreams that Bobby Kennedy will be president in '68 and that history will then remember McNamara as an architect of peace. His wife and children suffer as old women confront him in restaurants and spit in his face. And for decades, McNamara, who knew better, held his tongue--until, like Sophocles' noble antihero, the guilt surrounded him like a family of ghosts.

The subtitle that Errol Morris has given to his film The Fog of War is Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, and the structure of the movie is an ironic take on the kind of CEO self-help books hawked in airports. Morris cut down 20 hours of interviews with McNamara into two; and somewhere along that path, the self-contradicting currents of office politics, character flaws, and overdeveloped strengths, of technological change and cultural incomprehension were filtered out of sight. Thus The Fog of War becomes the apotheosis of Morris's career-long project: the conversion of bloodstained history into a spooky, oracular, ironically kitschy art object. Here, Morris doesn't have to fry the small potatoes of a two-bit Texas killer or a crackpot Holocaust denier: He gets to hire Philip Glass to fiddle while the 20th century burns.

Glass's musical signature--heaving and sighing arpeggios that gather in loops and accumulate an oceanic weight--is ideal for movies about natural processes. It brings the audience close to the Dalai Lama's acceptance of the folly of violence in Martin Scorsese's Kundun and seams together the life and fiction of the hero in Paul Schrader's Mishima. But applying Glass to the life and work of Robert McNamara amounts to a disastrous interpretation of the material. Whether Morris intends it or not (and I have a feeling he does intend it), the apparent timelessness and circularity of Glass's music depoliticizes the McNamara story. The folly of Vietnam (not to mention McNamara's apprentice role in Gen. Curtis LeMay's firebombing of Tokyo during World War II) becomes not the product of culturally predetermined misunderstanding or systemic callousness, but another artifact of Morris's tired theme: the Unknowability of All Things.

Unlike the makers of the recent Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary, who used a deliberately flat, Warholian talking-head style to produce a beautifully diverse series of emotional and historical resonances, Morris gilds the material with the creepy-slick style he applies to television commercials and the sexy cutaway spots he contrived for the 2002 Academy Awards. When McNamara sucks up to a cataclysmically pigheaded and vain LBJ on the phone, Morris gives us high-end shots of dominoes falling across a map of Southeast Asia. Stock footage from the '40s and '50s is exaggerated in its unselfconscious silliness and takes on a Stepford Wives clamminess. The result of Morris's aestheticizing glaze is to imply that the "fog of war" McNamara describes here--the way in which armed conflict is too complex for human intelligence to grasp--is an existential given, a cosmic car crash, a crummy April Fools' joke from God; there's nothing to do but wonder at the awesome cruelty and inscrutability of that condition. Morris has painstakingly underlined the connections between the defense departments of McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, and between our quicksand-like commitments 40 years ago and now. So how could he possibly be unaware that the feeling of well-informed awe and helplessness he labors to evoke precisely mirrors the relationship of the American people to the occupation of Iraq? Or that he himself is contributing to the paralysis?  

After two screenings of The Fog of War, I have come away not wondering about McNamara's guilt, but asking, What did Errol Morris know and when did he know it? Morris seems to have been so intent on forwarding his now-dated thesis--that rationality is unequal to the task of assessing the real and acting upon it ethically--that he missed the drama of McNamara's story and let his subject get away with softballs. The extra pressure applied to McNamara in the latter section of the movie suggests that Morris, like his subject, knew that he blew it, but couldn't own up and unsuccessfully tried to cover his tracks. In a hilarious moment of inadvertent self-exposure, Morris attempts to get McNamara to confess his guilt in an "epilogue," and, being thwarted in that attempt, proceeds to photograph his protagonist in a series of profoundly unflattering compositions.

McNamara has owned up to more than any political figure of his generation, or the one after his. And yet Americans continue to seek the narrative of contrition and potential reconstitution: We reserve the right to exercise our Baseball Hall of Fame or kick-you-off-the-island privileges--depending on how convincing your performance is. We want to hear McNamara's personal regrets, though his insights into the conditioned blind spots of his career are more instructive. At the risk of sounding like the heroine of Wallace Shawn's Aunt Dan and Lemon, it rankles me that so many writers who frequently earn their keep by essaying the relative merits of Hilary Duff movies have deigned to review the life and soul of Robert McNamara--and point their thumbs down. The Fog of War doesn't give us any compass with which to navigate the interior life of its subject--except in a moment when McNamara breaks down while recalling LeMay's grief over the death of a fighter
pilot's wingman. McNamara's barely suppressed remorse over his role in the deaths of many other wingmen is deeply moving and begs a Sophoclean question: How do you say you're sorry when you made a holocaust? The answer is nowhere to be found in Morris's profoundly offensive and inhuman film.

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