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on 4 August 2004
Robert McNamara served as Secretary of Defense for seven years under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (his middle name is Strange) is a documentary by Errol Morris in which McNamara talks about his life, his actions during World War Two, his involvement in the Cold War, and - perhaps most fascinatingly - his role in the escalation of the war in Vietnam.
In terms of technique, the film is excellent. This is a film about a serious subject, but it is also a film serious about its art. Morris exploits fully the advantages of cinema as a medium, both aurally and visually. Sound is used to evoke a perpetually ominous atmosphere, and the original score, composed by Philip Glass, is complementary without ever becoming intrusive. The images hold the eye without obscuring the facts being communicated: there is a particularly good series of close-up shots of retro reel-to-reel tape players used as a backdrop to recorded conversations (the Whitehouse Tapes) between McNamara and his two Presidents; and one very effective montage shows simply the names of bombed Japanese cities juxtaposed with the names of American cities of an equivalent size. (I had never considered that Tokyo was about as big as New York.)
But it is the footage of McNamara himself that really holds the attention of the audience. Morris has the him scrutinised constantly by the camera lens, initially in wide-shots, but eventually, as the film progresses and the subjects become more difficult, in searing, penetrating close-ups. As McNamara puts forward his case his face reveals multitudes; but the camera never feels intrusive and we sense a tacit agreement between Morris and McNamara that they are doing something that needs to be done. Occasionally McNamara appears cold, going strangely silent after speaking length on some subject, reluctant to go further; but mostly he is open - one extremely poignant moment shows him describing, with tears in his eyes, his walk through Arlington Cemetery, shortly after the November 22 assassination, to choose a burial site for JFK.
Morris structures the film around the eleven "lessons" of the title, each segment introduced by a caption. Although slightly artificial, this segmentation is useful, because it allows us to focus on very specific aspects of McNamara's dialogue. And as dialogues with politicians go, this one is intimate, compelling, and worthy of our attention. There are very few questions edited into the film, and little direct confrontation between interviewer and interviewee: McNamara is offering the viewer lessons about the waging of war, lessons - again, as the title suggests - drawn from his experiences as Secretary of Defense, senior executive at Ford, officer in the Army Air Forces, and student of philosophy, economics, and business. It is for us to consider the evidence and make our judgements.
Odd evasion aside - and who would not evade questions like: "do you feel guilty about the Vietnam War?" - McNamara gives (and Morris presents) an impressively candid interview; anyone interested in the people and decision-making processes of the period will enjoy it. As for McNamara himself, he comes across as an intelligent and rational player on the stage of history. But as he might say, sometimes intelligence and rationality aren't worth a damn.
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on 18 October 2005
"The Fog of War" is an excellent documentary directed by Errol Morris, and based on several interviews that Morris made to Robert McNamara. In my opinion, this is a documentary that everybody should see for its educational value. Despite that, please don't be scared: it is also very engaging, and consequently it is unlikely you will be able to turn it off once you have started to watch it.
Far from being a film that glorifies McNamara, this is a documentary in which the former Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations expresses his opinions sincerely, and privileges the facts even if they don't always make him look well. Moreover, "The Fog of War" includes visual and audio footage of historical value that backs up many of the things that McNamara points out, and that will be of interest to those who would like to learn more about Mr. McNamara, but also about American history.
At the time in which this documentary was filmed, Robert McNamara was 85 years old, and said that he was at a point in his life where he could look back and draw some conclusions regarding what he did in the past. Needless to say, the spectator will be grateful to be allowed to hear his opinions about his life, and the events that he participated in. McNamara lived during the Cold ("Cold War... Hell, it was a hot war"), and went through the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam, among other things. He was a professor, worked in the military, as president of Ford and as Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War. McNamara didn't led a boring life, and he tried to take advantage of his experiences ("My mission in life is to understand") in order not to make the same mistake too many times.
I was shocked by the casual way in which he talked about the death of Japanese civilians during Second War II ("I was part of a mechanism", "I had to make it more efficient not in the sense of killing more people but of weakening the adversary"). I was also somehow surprised by some acute observations McNamara made regarding the nature of nuclear war, highlighting the fact that "They'll be no learning period with nuclear weapons. Make one mistake and you're going to destroy nations".
The way in which McNamara tells the interviewer that after learning new facts about old events he discovered that he had taken a completely wrong course of action is pretty interesting. The problem, in many cases, had to do with the "fog of war", that is the lack of complete information that doesn't allow those in charge to make informed decisions during a war. If possible, pay attention to what McNamara says about the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. You will probably find some of those revelations interesting...
All in all, I think that "The Fog of War" is the best documentary I have watched so far, and I highly recommend it to you. You might agree or not with Robert McNamara's eleven "lessons" and the things says, but I am sure that you will find them interesting, and worth thinking about.
Belen Alcat
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on 6 November 2007
This fascinating Docu/ film by Errol Morris is subtitled "Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara," and if we can't learn something from McNamara's life, then we can't learn anything. This man was present at some of the pivotal moments of 20th century history. He was a key adviser to the military man who bombed the hell out of Japan before the A-bombs were even dropped. He revived Ford Motor Company as President of said company in the 1950s. He was at President Kennedy's side (Defence Secretary) during the Cuban missile crisis. He picked the site of Kennedy's grave. And he was the civilian head of the U.S. military during the first several years of the Vietnam war.

After decades of public silence, McNamara (age 85) opens up amazingly for Morris, apparently wanting to record his observations and judgments for posterity while his mind is still sharp as a tack. Morris obviously approached his subject with an agenda, but to his credit he doesn't ambush McNamara the way, say, Michael Moore would have.

In the end, the portrait of McNamara that emerges is that of a brainy whiz kid who approaches every job as a problem-solving opportunity. He is pressed about feelings of guilt for the deaths caused by his roles in World War II and Vietnam, but he seems reconciled to the fact the sometimes one has to commit a lesser evil in order to head off a greater evil. Perhaps this belief helps Tony Blair sleep at night whilst he thinks of the on going invasions/ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The portrait of Lyndon Johnson that emerges, on the other hand, is devastating. As described by McNamara, LBJ was a man who knew full well that his Vietnam strategy couldn't work but was too stubborn and prideful to change course. (McNamara resigned as secretary of defense when LBJ declined to respond to his memo recommending a pullout.) Years later, we learn, McNamara met with his opposite number in Vietnam and was surprised to learn that the Vietnamese did not regard the war as a senseless tragedy that should have been avoided (the prevailing view in America) but as a worthwhile war of liberation. That is why one of McNamara's key rules is that you need to be able to "empathise" with your enemy.
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on 2 April 2013
Someone who clearly knows exactly what he is talking about makes several observations about the innermost workings of the the military and war. Robert McNamara is ruthlessly honest, interesting and personally engaging throughout this journey through human darkness.

I would advise watching "Lesson #2: Rationality will not save us." last because, once you've taken this on board you may not be able to take any more. Entirely rational and well-meaning people may actually, and in fact nearly did (twice), start nuclear war. And it all so ridiculously sensible. We may be alive now because the Russians had the sense to climb down - when the Americans wouldn't.

We nearly didn't make it. Find out how close we came - if you dare.
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on 8 November 2005
A good film about a bad man? Robert Strange McNamara was Secretary of Sate for Defence under President Kennedy. He oversaw the escalation of the Vietnam war and this is the chief reason, out of the corner of your eye, you might think him a bogeyman of the left. But this film gives fresh ammo: Harvard educated statician who made aerial bombing of the Japanese a weapon of mass destruction while leaving allied air crews virtually untouchable; president of Ford motor company, that byword for lifting very worker’s voice to its greatest potential and the man who authorised the use of the coruscating agent orange in an already nasty, often secret secretly so, nasty crypto-colonial war.
The film is elegant. Its use of graphics and mood music, even when McNamara is talking to camera ensure that. Its agenda appears at the beginning to be one of getting you to see through the patina of charm McNamara has. At one point they show him ‘working’ the film crew of the documentary ‘ne need to retake, I remember where I was… have you got that… shall we go’etc and him doing exactly the same 40 years ago at a press conference during the Cuban missile crisis. But the film then goes into biopic mode and you see McNamara from his early days, college, married life, war service and then business career and it starts to feel like they and you are beginning to warm to McNamara. And so you do. McNamara asks tougher questions of himself then he ever gets from the off camera interviewer: was I war criminal; could I have avoided Vietnam becoming what it did and did I harm my family by the choices I made. While he doesn’t become a loveable old cove you start to think he was a sensitive man who simply had to make decisions, something the left appear to forget. Wouldn’t you just love to see Harold Pinter have to deal with missiles pointing at Hampstead or whether to risk more deaths of your own soldiers so that less of an enemy could be killed?
McNamara has faced up to his decisions and gone to Vietnam to meet his victims. The film describes a man travelling back down the road he has travelled, trying to understand and for the most part it is convincing as part testimonial part confessional. It’s also a fascinating primer for 2nd half 20th century history. In the end you think of him as a good man doing as little evil as possible and now regetting even that measure, hoping others can avoid his circumstances.
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on 15 August 2013
How disappointing that this highly intelligent successful man who was in office during a turbulent period in history completely fails even in retrospect to acknowledge his part in the slaughter of millions of Vietnamese. He correctly advised a listening President (JFK) to get out of Vietnam and then went on to facilitate the policy of Lyndon Johnson (who never listened to anybody) to "bomb North Vietnam back to the Stone Age". Towards the end of the the DVD he states that he saw his job as enabling the President to do what the President wanted. How pathetic is that?
In another interview (not on this DVD) McNamara does acknowledge, not that the USA was on the wrong side in Vietnam but that they WERE the wrong side. I was fascinated by his acount of his learning, decades later, from his Soviet counterparts, that, during the Cuba missile crisis the Soviet commanders in Cuba not only had battlefield nuclear weapons but FULL AUTHORITY TO USE THEM IF THE THEY FELT THE SITUATION JUSTIFIED IT.
If only McNamara had been willing, after realising that the USA was wrongly in Vietnam and that they were losing anyway, to speak out publicly against US policy then just possibly the war could have been ended sooner........
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on 13 January 2005
The FOG OF WAR is an important documentary that needs to be seen by young and old alike for historical and contemporary reasons.
Errol Morris's FOG OF WAR gives Robert McNamara, former secretary of defense and Vietnam War architect under presidents Kennedy and Johnson, a chance to explain how he went wrong. Those like me who had lived through the Vietnam War and knew down to the patriotic -- yes patriotic -- American marrow in our bones that the war was wrong can perhaps be forgiven for not forgiving McNamarra and his cohorts who now simply declare, "mistakes were made." Killing more than 58,000 of our countrymen, wounding mentally and physically five times that number while creating a hell on earth sent to kill millions of humans in Vietnam halfway around the world is unforgivable. Asking now to be understood or even for redemption for such a colossal "mistake" is extreme hubris. Today, president George W. Bush's "preemptive" war on Iraq is not so different from the now notorious Vietnam War.
The film ends with McNamara clearly not answerng Morris's more probing questions. Morris says these were a small sample of the many questions McNamara refused to answer. McNamara published his almost but not quite mea culpa book in 1995, "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam." In it he had acknowledged the "mistaken" conduct of the war. But it was met less with praise for its honesty than with fury among Vietnam veterans and the survivors of the dead. Probably, confused and traumatized by that experience, McNamara is reluctant to set off any more anger aimed at him. Yet, by the movie's end, this documentary portrait has taken us from the ultra competent McNamara to the cunning bamboozler whose face advertizes to the world the emptiness of his rationalizations; a man who evades talking about uncomfortable truths. Yet McNamara remains an almost likeable guy, very intelligent and contemplative, reciting his seemingly honest analysis of his life's mistakes.
An important fact presented by FOG OF WAR is that the U.S. was never winning it. Our generals always had claimed "progress" - and especially McNamara himself was laying out a statistical analyses of the war that so confidently showed that we could not possibly be losing. But his figures had nothing to do with the terrible facts of what was happening to our soldiers on the ground. FOG OF WAR shows black-and-white archival footage of Secretary McNamara almost gleefully talking up the war in the early days, but then things change. We see McNamara stepping off a plane after a fact-finding trip to Vietnam and tell the press, "The military operations are showing very substantial progress." It's obvious from the expression on his face that he no longer believes what he himself is saying! Maybe McNamara had been a brilliant man, but he certainly wasn't a very convincing liar.
The Vietnam War experience has obviously not changed our leaders' behavior. In Vietnam, it was the peasant Vietnamese in their black pajamas who had been dehumanized by McNamara. Now, todays leaders fail to empathize with the"towel head" Iraqis - failing to recognize that our troops' occupation of their country feels differently to an Iraqi than it does to us. They continue blaming the Iraqi turmoil on sabotage by a handful of Saddam Hussein loyalists labeled "insurgents" by our Psyops professionals. We are not supposed to recognize the nationalist anger that America is provoking. In his heyday, McNamara questioned the patriotism of any American who dared to challenge the wisdom of his Vietnam policy. Today, Bush and Rumsfeld say if you don't agree with their Iraq policy then you're a disloyal American.
From FOG OF WAR, we can learn that if Bush and his group get four more years to wage this miserable war in Iraq then we'll let ourselves in for the same lasting Vietnam-like quagmire anguish. The anguish will be similar to the one we had been forced to live through because our nearly forgotten, former leaders only NOW dare to tell us that they had made big mistakes 40 years ago!
See FOG OF WAR. You'll be amazed at how precisely history repeats itself when the minds of very clever men in Washington become ruled by their hubris rather than by common sense.
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Morris gives 86 year-old McNamara – the Rumsfeld of Vietnam – a platform from which to survey his life and is rewarded with a circumspect openness that assures the film’s historical value. The lessons are Morris’s reading and occasionally seem forced, but work with archive material and Philip Glass’s soundtrack to ensure this talking head is never dull.
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on 24 September 2004
Errol Morris's biopic of Robert S. McNamara focuses on his time as US Secretary of Defence during the Vietnam conflict, having intially been hand-picked by JFK for the post pre-war despite having no prior experience of politics.
McNamara's earlier life of academic and commercial achievement is also touched upon (including the surprising fact that McNamara invented car seatbelts...), as is his later role as President of the World Bank - a tenure which lasted 13 years.
However, the crux of the documentary concerns McNamara's handling of the Vietnam War, and attempts to elicit understanding of the motivations of both J.F.K. and subsequently L.B.J. regarding the USA's miltary involvement.
Although McNamara is an extremely articulate and genial interviewee, his repeated point-blank refusal to answer Errol Morris's more incisive questions regarding the politics behind the conflict begin to jar. The purpose of the film appears purely to be a method of catharsis for McNamara, as he is clearly a an altruistic man upon whose shoulders rests much guilt concerning the abhorrent loss of life in Vietnam. He freely admits many mistakes were made, both by himself and in particular L.B.J. and his Chiefs of Staff. However, it's unfortunate that McNamara repeatedly shies away from any overtly controversial criticism of the ex-president - despite the fact LBJ apparently sacked McNamara solely for his anti-war stance.
Nevertheless, his account of the political machinations of both administrations under which he served are frequently fascinating, particularly his chilling account of the Cuban missile crisis and how close the world came to all-out nuclear war. Unfortunately, it's also rather unsatisfying in revealing any new insights into the unwinnable war in Vietnam which still exists as an open wound in America's history.
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VINE VOICEon 12 July 2005
This was an excellent, informative and well balanced inquiring into the mind of Robert S. McNamara.
There are many plusses to this documentary. One of course is to see a different insider's view of history. Another is we get a feel for what McNamara is really like as a human being instead of a news item. We even get an "If I had it to do all over" scenario.
I was especially interested in the Vietnam era as I was there in 67-68 and at the time did not pay attention to the big picture. It makes you wonder what we will find out about today tomorrow.
Aside from the interesting history and different views of the actual decisions of the time, is that the presentation wand in a more chronological order, instead of a bunch of sound bites pouncing back and forth between different narrators, jumbling the timeline in the process.
This is a good addition to your library and can prove useful for future generations.
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