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February 1, 2004 - McNamara's Lessons

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The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons of Robert S. McNamara
A documentary written and directed by Errol Morris

Running time: 106 minutes.  No MPAA rating.
Sony Pictures Classics, opened December 19


As one young critic put it:


Before seeing The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons of Robert S. McNamara, my only knowledge of the subject was through Simon and Garfunkel's "A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara'd into Submission)," which was a parody of Bob Dylan, and that's funny because Dylan Baker played McNamara in Thirteen Days (thus completing this unusual circle of inconsequence).  From what I've been able to gather - and my American History textbooks educated through only the early 1950s - McNamara wasn't exactly well-liked when he was the Secretary of Defense to Kennedy and Johnson, especially by those opposed to the war in Viet Nam.


Huh?  No kidding!  We don't pay enough attention to history, obviously.


McNamara, now eighty-five, sat down in front of Errol Morris's Interrotron for over twenty hours of interviews, and those have been edited down to ninety minutes of footage, aided by archive material and a Philip Glass score. 


By the way, Morris' "Interrotron" is a video device that allows Morris and his subjects to look into each other's eyes while also looking directly into the camera lens.  Whether this invention results in better interviews is impossible to say, but it does have the uncanny result that the person on the screen never breaks eye contact with the audience.  Odd.


So what of this movie?


As J. Hoberman says in the Village Voice


In a year distinguished by many strong documentaries, none feels more important than The Fog of War.  Indeed, Errol Morris's new essay, AKA "Robert McNamara and the Ring of Power," is almost ridiculously relevant and not just because it's impossible to see McNamara's steely smile and jaunty certitude without thinking "Donald Rumsfeld."


In the deepest sense, The Fog of War is about the inadequacy of human intelligence.  Morris's portrait of the former secretary of defense and prime architect of the Vietnam War, has been culled from over 20 hours of interviews.  Elegantly annotated with archival footage and declassified White House tapes, The Fog of War allows this disarming 86-year-old raconteur to reveal what he was taught by the Cuban missile crisis (don't put your faith in rational behavior) and to detail his lesser-known experiences as contributor to the World War II firebombing of Japan and pioneer of the automobile seat belt.


Oh, it matters now?


Ellen Goodman says so:


There was another moment when I thought the film should be viewed as well by those who believe that American vulnerability began on Sept. 11, 2001.


Remembering the Cuban missile crisis, the old Cold Warrior says: "At the end we lucked out.  It was luck that prevented nuclear war."


But by the time the film ran through the aging whiz kid's schoolbook - "Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara" - I was convinced that it should be seen most of all by those who are too young to remember when the Vietnam War was called McNamara's War.


No, I am not someone who believes that Iraq is another Vietnam.  Every war - if I may mangle Tolstoy - is unhappy in its own way.  But you can't hear McNamara alternately justifying and apologizing for his role as secretary of defense, running his tongue across the painful tooth of his involvement again and again, without hearing echoes.


"What makes us omniscient?" asks the man once described as an IBM machine with legs.  "If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we better reexamine our reasons."


Actually the full quote is this: ''We are the strongest nation in the world today, and I do not believe we should ever apply that economic, political or military power unilaterally.  If we'd followed that rule in Vietnam, we wouldn't have been there.  None of our allies supported us.  If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we'd better re-examine our reasoning.''


Well, no invitations for lunch at the White House for Bob, then.


Clinton - the former president and not the current senator - has been giving speeches lately in which he keeps saying that the Republicans believe in acting unilaterally as a general rule, and cooperatively only when they must, while his side used to think one should act cooperatively as a general rule, and unilaterally only when you must.  So McNamara has left the dark side.


But the film? 


I don't want to keep in mind General Curtis "Kill Them Until They Give Up" LeMay and the firebombing of all those Japanese cities.  Yes, he and McNamara planned all that.  McNamara feels real bad about it now.


We know what happened.  There's nothing new here.  And I'd rather not see McNamara agonize over that, and over Vietnam.


The question is always this - NOW WHAT?


But for those like the young critic up top?  Or those with no memory of all this and no sense of history?  The film might be useful.