There comes a time in every person’s life when you might feel like sharing some of the lessons you’ve learned in life. Most people probably shouldn’t bother because they are likely to have experienced pretty much the same thing as everyone else, but it’s quite possible that a former U.S. secretary of defense could have something special to offer. Especially Robert Strange McNamara who at the age of 85 can’t wait to tell the world eleven lessons he has learned from his life.
Errol Morris is definitely one of the greatest documentary filmmakers ever. This film is very simple in its set-up. He has basically put the old man in front of a camera, asked him questions, filmed his answers and illustrated his tales with archive footage, newly-shot material and Philip Glass’s music (which always seems to work to great effect in Morris’s films).
It is in the editing room that the director shows his talent, fusing the various ingredients into a coherent, fascinating film. He knows when to employ visual effects – just look at the sequence where McNamara tells about the planning behind the air raids on Tokyo near the end of World War II and how something as dull as the numbers in the mathematic formulas suddenly come alive. But Morris couldn’t have made it interesting without the presence of a charismatic leading character. Robert McNamara was secretary of defense for seven years, serving presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He has been called the architect of the Vietnam War and was very controversial in those days. Television viewers saw a relatively young man who looked good in front of cameras, but was also a key player in an administration that kept intensifying a war that was hated all over the world.
McNamara also tries to give us some insight into the Cuban missile crisis (apparently we came even closer to nuclear war than you might think), tells us about his participation in the despicable firebombing of Tokyo and how he got involved in making cars safer at Ford. And, oh yes, he was also president of the World Bank for several years. It’s quite a career.
Person of contradictions
So, has he learned anything from this illustrious life? Sure he has, but don’t expect 105 minutes with the world’s foremost philosopher. The eleven lessons he delivers basically say that you should prepare for the unexpected, never forget how human nature works and in order to do good you may have to commit evil. It’s all a gray zone. Nothing sensational then, but McNamara is a person of contradictions. He tells us about the phony incident in the Bay of Tonkin that launched the Vietnam War, and goes into detail describing how innocent men, women and children in Tokyo fell victim to his incendiary bombs… but just because he’s very forthcoming about these things doesn’t mean that he has many regrets. In fact, he claims to be proud of his achievements (although he tends to lay the blame for everything that went wrong during the Vietnam War on someone else, the president).
McNamara is a man who has accomplished things and the fact that a lot of people have suffered in the process is just something one has to live with. Not everyone is likely to agree with his reasoning, but Morris allows the 85-year-old to speak his mind and doesn’t force any opinions on us.
The film expertly shows the meaning of the expression, “the fog of war”. Every battle is immensely complicated, there is no right or wrong, and in the midst of this fog stand those individuals who try to make the best of messy situations. The jury is still out on McNamara’s contributions.
The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara 2003-U.S. 105 min. Color. Produced by Errol Morris, Julie Bilson Ahlberg, Michael Williams. Directed by Errol Morris. Music: Philip Glass.
Trivia: Morris invented the “Interrotron” for the interviews with McNamara, which is a camera with mirrors that makes the interview subject see the man he is talking to when looking into the camera.
Oscar: Best Documentary Feature.
Last word: “You have to remember that we are talking about someone who has been interviewed a thousand times. [McNamara] walked into the studio and said, ‘What is that?’ I smiled and said, ‘The Interrotron.’ He said, ‘Well, whatever it is, I don’t like it.’ But then he sat down, and we proceeded to record over twenty hours of interviews. I guess he came to like it, too.” (Morris, FLM Magazine)