There have been few politicos in American history that have affected foreign policy like Robert Strange McNamara. As Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, McNamara experienced firsthand many of the Cold War’s tensest moments, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, The Assassination of JFK and Vietnam.
Nominated for a 2003 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, The Fog Of War features over ten hours of interviews with Mr. McNamara boiled into ninety-five minutes of riveting history and social commentary that change how McNamara is perceived within the American political landscape.
In front of the camera, McNamara pulls no punches. It begins with his stark, recounting of the firebombing of Japan in World War 2. McNamara and General Curtis LeMay were responsible for these bombings that killed over one million people. McNamara seems genuinely pained by his role in all of this. It is in his retelling of these events that McNamara calls the Allies’ moral conduct into question.
Perhaps the most interesting and revealing moments of The Fog Of War occur when McNamara reflects on the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. McNamara believes that sheer luck and fortune by the US and the Soviets ruled the day. While being interviewed, McNamara underscores just how close the world really came to Nuclear War. He also
details the gamesmanship between the Kennedys and General Curtis LeMay over an invasion of Cuba. In fact, throughout the film, McNamara’s revelations about Curtis LeMay paint a fresh image of the General as an ambitious warmonger. It is interesting to note that LeMay has managed to stay clear of the fray surrounding McNamara’s role in American politics.
The Fog Of War really gets going as McNamara comments on two subjects, his tenuous relationship with Lyndon Johnson and his role in the Vietnam War. Much has been written already about the volatile relationship between LBJ and McNamara. However, archived audiotapes from the LBJ Library support Morris’ view that the two clashed over Vietnam policy on several occasions. With regard to Vietnam, McNamara is reviled as the policy maker most involved with the escalation of the Vietnam War. Once again the new JFK & LBJ audiotapes show Robert McNamara walking a course of discretion when counseling Presidents. In fact it is these previously unavailable LBJ/JFK recordings that clamor for a more complex re-evaluation of Robert McNamara.
In using McNamara as the focus for his film, director Erol Morris has delved into the very essence of history. The Fog of War is a documentary that both chronicles our times and makes strident points about humanity, society, warfare and government.
On screen McNamara, the ex-soldier, CEO and president of the World Bank, presents his case as an experienced politician, repentant, reformed and regretful of his actions. Much of what he has says in the film about American foreign policy resonates today with alarming clarity. With The Fog Of War he has galvanized his stature as a player in world affairs. Robert S. McNamara is a man who claims to have spent his adult life trying to do the right thing. In The Fog Of War this appears to be true. However, actions speak louder than words these days and at times it is hard to discern whether or not he is truly sincere.
In any case, Erol Morris ensures that we at least get a second opinion on his legacy. This documentary sheds an entirely new light on a figure of profound importance and controversy, who will undoubtedly remain a fascinating character study for generations to come. The Fog Of War is simultaneously engaging, disturbing, revelatory and enlightening. The result in a compelling film that is informative thought provoking and entertaining.