(2003) dir. Errol Morris
I had always intended to see this film when it first came out. Errol Morris is probably one of the more well-known and perhaps important documentary filmmakers of the past 20 years, and this film, stemming from a long interview or series of interviews with Robert S. McNamara, one-time Secretary of Defense under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson, during the period of the Cuban Missle Crisis, the Bay of Pigs, and the onset of the Vietnam War. It’s interesting stuff. But when contrasted with the many documentaries that I have seen lately in reference to the current war in Iraq, it seemed utterly timely.
That and this week saw the opening of Morris’ new film Standard Operating Procedure (2008), a documentary about Abu Grhaib prison and use of torture in the U.S. government.
I have to say that The Fog of War is a tremendously contemplative film. Before it’s release, I wasn’t even familiar with who Robert McNamara was. Which is scary that such an important, key figure in the history of the past 50 years is obscure enough that I have trouble knowing who he is, much less the average American.
The stories he tells, interpreted as “lessons”, are stunning, fascinating insights into American history, into politics, the process of information distribution and what is really happening in the world. McNamara is strikingly intelligent and his life story, rising from his role as a Harvard professor into military analysis and into the ultimate role as advisor to the U.S. presidency about the steps to take in some of the most important crises of the past half-century.
He strikingly notes that under his few years as Secretary of Defense that the U.S. came within a hair’s breadth of nuclear war, World War III, perhaps the end of life as we know it three specific times. There is a depth of insight and reality here that echoes deeply into much of what we have come to accept and understand as “history”. And it’s not that McNamara is offering a “no holds barred” interview. He clearly states that certain understandings up culpability and of responsibility he will not address, nor the effect that these choices and experiences had on his own family.
McNamara is an incredibly intelligent man, whose role in history is significant, whose insight is keen and specific, whose knowledge and ideas are well worth hearing, taking for what they are, for their specific clarity and specificity. Knowledge is never 100%. Hindsight is not necessarily 20-20. But hindsight is history. And this personal perspective is fascinating and well-evoked by Morris. I do recommend it very much.