In films such as Gates of Heaven and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, the quirky, ironic, nihilistic documentarian Errol Morris introduces us to the accomplishments, philosophies and inner lives of fringe oddballs and powerless nobodies. But now, in The Fog of War, he examines the outer life of a very mainstream oddball and powerful somebody: Robert Strange McNamara -- Harvard graduate and professor there in the 1930s, World War II strategist, Ford Motor Co.'s savior after the war, Kennedy and Johnson's secretary of defense, and president of the World Bank from '68 until his retirement in 1981.
McNamara -- who is a clear-headed 87-year-old, and who cooperated with Morris on the making of this film -- is the only one whose voice we hear in Fog of War, aside from people speaking in historic films and tapes, and the very occasional voice of an unseen interviewer asking a question now and then during McNamara's face-the-camera monologues. (The voice, presumably Morris', speaks in a deadpan style that loosely echoes Mo Rocca's parodic reportage on Comedy Central's The Daily Show.)
You would expect a man like McNamara, reviled by some in his time as an arrogant military-industrialist and liar, to come off looking either typically bad in a film like this or else very, very liberated from the cruel misunderstandings of history and ideology. In fact, Morris accomplishes neither: His subject ends up looking possibly even worse, considering how Morris ultimately gives him the chance to go beneath the surface of himself, and how he flatly refuses to do so.
Instead, we get a rather conventional walk through history, dressed up by Morris' tilted camera angles, interesting old footage, and the requisite soundtrack from Philip Glass, whose work in the film brims with ersatz emotion and the ability to undermine virtually everything with the musical equivalent of a sideward glance.
Morris subtitles his film "Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara," and as the film proceeds, he counts down these lessons on-screen with words taken directly from McNamara's fluid lips.
Lesson No. 1 is "empathize with your enemy," something McNamara learned when he and others helped Kennedy through the Cuban Missile Crisis without blowing us all up. He learned Lesson No. 4, "maximize efficiency," during World War II, when statistics showed that 20 percent of our flyboys didn't drop their bombs because they were apparently too frightened to cross into enemy territory. So the division for which McNamara worked helped develop the B-29, which could bomb from greater heights. They also installed the maniacal Gen. Curtis LeMay to terrorize the men into doing their job.
And so came Lesson No. 5: "Proportionality should be a guideline in war." He learned this when, in 1945, LeMay taught B-52 pilots to fly lower and firebomb half the civilian population of Japan, a decision in which McNamara participated, and which he mulls over in The Fog of War.
Needless to say, Vietnam taught him many lessons, such as No. 7 ("belief and seeing are both wrong"), No. 8 ("be prepared to re-evaluate your reasoning"), and so forth, none of which he truly took. As fascinating as it remains to hear more and more about the folly of Vietnam, Morris tells us nothing new about it, although he does -- whether accidentally or magnanimously -- put the war into a context that helps us understand how some people could have been so fatally wrong to continue it. (Lesson No. 11: "You can't change human nature.")
In 1965, McNamara told the president -- we hear this on tapes from the era -- that things were going badly and that we should get out while we could. Johnson ignored his advice, and like any good bureaucrat of conscience, McNamara acquiesced and stayed on to serve his president and wage his war.
Why did he do this? Why didn't he leave? Why didn't he speak out when, in 1967, he finally did get fired? "Those are the kinds of questions that get me into trouble," McNamara says, when Morris finally asks him. "I don't want to go any further. ... I'd rather be damned if I don't." The End.
Well, whatever. For a Harvard professor who fancies himself an intellectual and a philosopher, McNamara sounds awfully like a retired politician in The Fog of War. He fights back his tears when he remembers the day Kennedy died, but he doesn't shed a single tear over the dead of the Vietnam War, thus proving Stalin's grim aphorism that one death is a tragedy and 20 million a statistic.
Should we at least be a little grateful to this ancient dog of war for stating so clearly that nuclear weapons are bad and that we simply must not annihilate ourselves with them? Sure, why not. You'll never hear Rummy give an interview like this, except maybe in Hell. Rational individuals, McNamara says, came very close in 1962 to the destruction of their society -- he means Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro, the last one being very arguable -- "and that danger exists today." So in conclusion, says the old man, we should not use American military power to achieve unilateral hegemony in countries around the world. That, he says, was the biggest lesson he learned from Vietnam, although I suppose it's too late to put this film in our current president's Christmas stocking.