Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
The Fog of War (2003)
"A lot of people misunderstand the [Vietnam] war. A lot of people misunderstand me. A lot of people think I'm a son of a bitch."- Robert McNamara
Stars: Robert McNamara
Director: Errol Morris
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for images and thematic issues of war and destruction
Run Time: 01h:46m:56s
Release Date: 2004-05-11
DVD ReviewThere's a persuasive case to be made that, after Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara is one of the great unprosecuted war criminals; it's a measure of this extraordinary movie that director Errol Morris gets McNamara himself to talk about that very subject. Even more so than either of the two presidents he served, McNamara has come to embody the American experience in Vietnam, and understanding the sweeping impact of his career in private industry and public service is an enormous undertaking. McNamara is surely worthy of a biographer like Robert Caro; other writers, including the wonderfully empathic Paul Hendrickson of the Washington Post, for one, found that this particular mountain was too high to climb. (Nevertheless, his book The Living and the Dead is one of the best you'll find about Vietnam and McNamara.) But Morris isn't daunted, he embraces the challenge; and he won over McNamara's confidence, getting the former Defense Secretary to cooperate fully with him. The result is this moving, instructive film, as much a character piece as it is a case study in the management and the folly of war.
A few years ago, McNamara published his first book, In Retrospect, and though it clearly reads like an old man trying to make peace with the world, it nevertheless provoked a tremendous amount of outrage—McNamara wrote that not only does he now believe that the Vietnam War was unwinnable, but that he thought the same thing when he led the Pentagon. How could he justify the folly of sending so many American men to their deaths in Southeast Asia, setting our nation up for inevitable failure? In a way, Morris makes a better case for McNamara than McNamara does himself; the storytelling strategies here share some obvious affinities with those used in The Kid Stays in the Picture, in which the dynamic, central figure is allowed to speak for himself, and the filmmakers trust us to draw our own conclusions.
McNamara speaks directly to the camera, answering questions from an always unseen and usually unheard Morris, who hollers questions and comments from out of frame. The chronology isn't straightforward, and though Morris jumps around, he of course gets all the broad strokes—almost too perfectly, McNamara claims that his first memory of childhood was the celebration of the armistice ending World War I, the war to end all wars. McNamara served his country in World War II, where he encounters the first villain of the piece, Curtis Le May, a general who wants to bomb the hell out of everyone; McNamara fancies himself a voice of reason, but he's already moving into the passive voice that led to the famous credibility gap. Here, for instance, is his comment on the firebombing of Tokyo, which killed 100,000: "I was part of a mechanism that in a sense recommended it." Here he establishes the disturbing pattern of war by charts and graphs, though as discussed in the first paragraph, he's aware of the consequences, saying of himself and Le May: "He and, I'd say, I were behaving as war criminals."
The film touches briefly on McNamara's tenure at the Ford Motor Company, and how instrumental he was in putting seat belts into automobiles; but more crucially, the film slowly circles, drops hints about, and finally tackles head on the principal aspect of McNamara's public life: the prosecution of the war in Vietnam. Morris artfully cuts together archival footage, Oval Office audiotapes, new illustrative shots (e.g., dominoes being knocked down on a map of Southeast Asia—Morris's may be the only documentaries with production design credits), and McNamara's discussion of his past. He sees the war in Vietnam through the prism of the Cold War; still, one of the many hard lessons is that wars aren't fought with IBM punch cards. And McNamara has a love of poetry, but seems to have almost no sense of irony—either that, or he's deliberately ignorant about people like David Halberstam when he talks about the Kennedy Administration: "We were looking for the best and the brightest."
I didn't think it was possible, but Morris has humanized McNamara, making him a figure not of pity nor merely a monster, but a man haunted, one with whom we can empathize—it's hard not to be touched, for instance, when McNamara discusses his November 1963 trip to Arlington National Cemetery, to pick out the gravesite for President Kennedy. And there are, of course, lessons for our own time, aside from the alarming and increasing resemblance of Donald Rumsfeld to McNamara. President Johnson's words could be President George W. Bush's, when LBJ says that "we have declared war on tyranny and aggression." And it's a damn shame that Dick Cheney wasn't listening to McNamara, when the Administration made the decision to flout the U.N. and go it alone in Iraq: "If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we'd better re-examine our reasoning." Perhaps Bob Woodward or Richard Clarke or someone else will prevent members of the current Administration from failing to act on their own convictions; or perhaps the example of McNamara will serve as an appropriate cautionary tale to the Paul Wolfowitzes of our time.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A+
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Image Transfer Review: Some of the archival footage of course varies in quality, but the transfer to DVD is a clean and sharp one, with strong, consistent colors and deep saturation.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: Philip Glass's affecting score is well balanced with McNamara's narrative, and the 5.1 track is moody, atmospheric and essentially free of aural interference.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in Japanese, French, Spanish, Portuguese with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring Big Fish, Winged Migration
2 TV Spots/Teasers
25 Deleted Scenes
- Robert McNamara's Ten Lessons, with an audio introduction
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsOur current presidential campaign is a reminder that Vietnam remains, in many respects, the great unhealed American wound; and an understanding of Robert McNamara as a man and a warrior is vital to a broader comprehension of the U.S. years in Southeast Asia. Errol Morris's documentary is a virtuoso piece of filmmaking, a poignant character study, and a profound meditation on our politics; and it shouldn't take American soldiers coming back from Iraq in body bags to remind us that war is hell.
Jon Danziger 2004-05-09