Hazy and Lazy

The Fog of War

What, exactly, is one supposed to get from Errol Morris’ latest movie, The Fog of War, winner of this year’s Oscar for best documentary?

This feature-length interview with Robert McNamara — secretary of defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations — is more mirror than painting, allowing many critics to read into it exactly what they bring in.

It’s a curious effect, but not entirely surprising. The Fog of War focuses narrowly on its subject and as a result suffers from tunnel vision. It’s so devoid of context and so lacking in introspection and personality that it comes off as a history lecture, slightly enlivened by Morris’ signature visual approach and dampened by Philip Glass’ sleep-inducing score.

I’m not troubled that The Fog of War is vague in its aims, with no clear thesis, however. Morris’ Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control was intentionally diffuse — splicing four very different men with nothing obvious in common — but the movie cohered with its playfulness, its riffs on themes, and its adoration and respect for people who love their odd jobs. A Brief History of Time covered both the ideas in Stephen Hawking’s book of the same name and the physicist’s life, and tied them together in beautiful and unexpected ways. Mr. Death similarly worked on two tracks, as the story of man who improves methods of killing people while at the same time claiming the Holocaust never happened.

But all those movies are overstuffed, filled with so much strangeness, wonder, curiosity, and discovery — life, in other words — that even if they had been made less skillfully, they would still be amazingly compelling. The Fog of War is thin and wan, mostly because McNamara, as an interviewee, is not nearly charismatic or dramatic enough to carry it. Whatever conflict and contradiction there is in him is buried, and the director/interviewer can’t excavate it. Late in the film, Morris asks his subject if he feels any guilt or remorse, and McNamara flatly refuses to answer.

The movie basically follows McNamara’s recollections from World War II to the Cuban Missile Crisis to Vietnam. This already didactic remembrance is subtitled “Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” and the section titles are so trite that they might be drawn from an infomercial on military strategy: “Empathize with your enemy,” “Get the data,” “Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning.”

And there’s little insight in what McNamara has to say. He admits that had the United States been on the losing side in World War II, he might have been prosecuted as a war criminal for the firebombing of Japanese cities. He says that Kennedy probably would have ended U.S. involvement in Vietnam, while Johnson believed that winning the conflict was a critical component of Cold War victory. Most of this is common knowledge or common sense, and the former defense secretary delivers it with polish and without pause; it feels practiced.

McNamara seems reasonable and thoughtful in the movie — perhaps to a fault — and it’s hard to see exactly how this man emerged from the thicket of epithets used to describe him when he was secretary of defense. Morris presents recordings of White House conversations that in content and tenor suggest McNamara hasn’t changed much over the past four decades, and that leads to the question of whether he was mischaracterized in the press.

But the filmmaker refuses to expand the scope of his inquiry. This is the world according to Robert McNamara.

Any intelligent viewer knows that it’s dangerous to take a man at his word — particularly someone used to being the public eye, who ran Ford Motor Company, the U.S. military, and the World Bank — but Morris doesn’t offer any other voices. (The movie in that way has the same M.O. as his First Person television series.) And so The Fog of War fails as history lesson, too, because there’s no attempt to verify or question McNamara’s version of events.

What the movie most resembles is an attempt to record the oral history of a man who probably won’t be on the Earth too much longer. McNamara was 85 when he was interviewed — although he looks a good 15 years younger — and probably wanted to capture his thoughts and memories for posterity. He was lucky enough to have a skilled filmmaker who wanted to help him.

But for me, the effort doesn’t add up to much.

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