Hostility toward a public figure is usually a generational thing, which is why "The Fog of" War will resonate most strongly with audiences of a certain age. A colleague of mine who came to maturity during the Vietnam conflict found this filmed tête-á-tête with former U.S. defense secretary Robert McNamara simply irresistible; back in the day, he recalled, McNamara was "public enemy No. 1." Having amassed a different set of formative experiences -- running home from grade school to watch the Watergate trials on TV -- I guess I would be similarly attracted to a sit-down with E. Howard Hunt. You hate what you know best.
If you, too, missed out on the fun of despising McNamara, you'll be entertained but unsatisfied by The Fog of War, in which celebrated documentarian Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line) turns his infinitely probing lens on one wizened, potentially remorseful ex-warrior. Now 85 and displaying all the deliberate verbosity of a man who's worked out exactly what he wants to say if he ever gets the chance to say it, McNamara lays out 11 "rules" of conflict resolution he's learned in his years of service. (Examples: "Empathize With Your Enemy"; "Belief and Seeing Are Both Often Wrong.")
These lessons were picked up not only during McNamara's tenure in the Kennedy and Johnson White Houses, but via his duty as a military statistician during World War II. In one of the film's most powerful passages, McNamara recounts some horrific offensives the Allied powers perpetrated against foreign civilians in that war. As a visual underscore, Morris shows us the names of Axis cities we bombed, then substitutes the names of U.S. cities of equal population. Call it outrage by analogy.
With the serendipity only nonfiction can provide, a good deal of McNamara's pearls of accrued wisdom turn out to be textbook examples of everything the Bush administration hasn't done in Iraq; for a time, it seems that the movie's raison
d'être will be to prove that this perceived architect of damnation has experienced an epiphany that put him at odds with the flow of American foreign policy. McNamara, though, isn't defined so easily. The movie gives him ample opportunities to cast himself as a misunderstood fall guy for the hawkish Lyndon Johnson -- some astonishing found audio supports the thesis -- but instead he expresses an undying loyalty toward the man who ended up giving him the heave-ho.
That steadfastness is to the film's
detriment. Unlike Morris' last picture,
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr., The Fog of War lacks a dramatic arc, an unfolding portrait of a soul lost or found. McNamara is a cagey old soldier who won't go so far as to apologize for his role in the Vietnam escalation or admit it was all a tragic mistake -- the confessions we're hoping and expecting to hear. When it comes to making public statements that might reflect on his irreparably tarnished image, he says, "I'd rather be damned if I don't." As a viewer, I'd rather damn him if he did.