Saturday, September 18, 2010

Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

Errol Morris (director), 2003, 105m

Errol Morris has a genius to get people talking, engaging them in creative dialogue. He has even invented a gadget called the interrotron to facilitate the process. It uses mirrors and the interviewee is speaking to the lens (he must be getting the feel of loud thinking) and the eye contact is with the viewer of the film. Morris never appears on screen though you can hear him infrequently asking a few questions in a slow, disembodied tone. Tough guy that he surely is RSM frequently breaks down, just short of tears, his voice breaking, when talking of the JFK assassination or the immolation of a mormon in protest against the US role in the Vietnam war. Of course great men have to be great actors. But it is such intimate authentic touches that are responsible for the power of the film.

One thing that comes through forcefully in this film is the central role of the individual in shaping social destiny. History is made by individuals. Power is necessarly concentrated in individuals, even in a democracy, and the processes that determine the course of war and peace occur invisibly in the depths of an individual mind. Such concentraton is all the more pronounced in war time. In the event of nuclear war the decision to press the trigger will formulate in one person's mind, and people at the helm seem to be closer to insanity than the rest of us. We learn from the film that the world was but a whisker breadth from nuclear calamity durng the 1962 Bay of Pigs Cuban Missile Crisis. Castro retrospectively confesses (in a 1992 meeting with McNamara) that he had already recommended the use of the over hundred nuclear warheads deployed in or around Cuba against the US in the event Cuba was attacked, even at the cost of Cuba's annihilaton, much to McNamara's horror, feigned or otherwise.

Human beings are fallible and war is a fog in which nothing is clearly visible. Most alarmingly, says the politician, human nature cannot change (the last of his eleven conclusions) and we are doomed to recurrent cycles of conflict. Whether it is so must be debated but it is nauseous that brilliant people at the peaks of the pyramids of power can find such suicidal fatalism affordable.. Obvious alongside the incredible evolution of the human intellect is the rudimentary development of the ethical funny-bone, which is the cause for the unleashing of hell and the helplessly collapsing dominoes, from Genghiz Khan down to the Nuclear Godzilla.

The peak years of McNamara's life (1916-2009) span his Presidentship of the Ford Motor Company, Secretary of Defense during Kennedy's tenure (including the nuclear confrontation during the Cuban crisis and JFK's assassination), the Vietnam war under Johnson and subsequently President of the World Bank. We journey through the past of McNamara in the company of Morris through a series of questions and monologues. In particular, the film gives a remarkably clear picture of the blunderings and errors of judgement which were the hallmark of the Vietnam war.

This is a riveting film. More than anything else we catch glimpses into the workings of McNamara's mind and behind the scene discussions that shaped some important parts of 20th century history. The insight into the nature of nuclear arsenals and the possible scenarios which could precipitate nuclear holocaust are fascinating.

Morris draws no conclusion and the conclusion if any is that there cannot be finality. The movie fittingly closes with the quote from T.S. Eliot:

We shall not cease from exploring
and at the end of our exploration
ws shall return where we started.

This is the work of an inspired documentarian with a vast three dimensional vision, wise enough to observe truthfully and passionately, and leave conclusions if any to the viewer.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, I need to see this film. Great review, S M. :-)

S M Rana said...

Yeah. Can't afford to miss.

Anonymous said...

"Fog of War" is my first Errol Morris film. It was absorbing experince. McNamara is really a interesting man who can tell you many interesting(and frightening) stories from his experience, and Morris deftly creates beautiful ambiguity while camly maintaing his objectivity - with memorable Phillip Glass music.

S M Rana said...


I agree completely. Since ambiguity springs not merely from the limits of knowledge and intellect but is inherent in the very nature of things, Morris' leaving things dangling at the end is one hallmark of the authenticity of his vision.

Nathanael Hood said...

Excellent review.

You know, I've been watching a lot of Morris lately. The most recent one that I saw was "Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control."

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more engaging documentary filmmaker working today. His mind seems to be going in a million directions at once.

S M Rana said...

@Nath: Thanks. And "a million ways" is apt.