Errol Morris’ The Fog of War is a sobering, chastening, riveting work, and one of the most unsettling cinematic experiences imaginable. And that’s not in the least because it was filmed well in advance of our current war; though World War II and Vietnam are actually being discussed, Fog invariably seems to be commenting on U.S. involvement in Iraq.
This is an even more difficult film for those of us who retain our ’60s sensibilities, in no small part because Fog‘s principal subject, former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, was long ago cast as one of the primary demons of the Vietnam era. To have to rethink that simplistic viewpoint at this late date is … well, not convenient, even if most of us knew full well that the war was much more Lyndon B. Johnson’s baby than McNamara’s. That, however, is the power of the documentary that Errol Morris has put together from 20 hours of interviews: It doesn’t let any of us off the hook.
The film is hardly a valentine to the architect of the Vietnam War, and it’s worth noting that neither the filmmaker nor the viewer is ever likely to take what the man says at face value. There’s too much evidence in historical recordings used throughout the film that McNamara — and to some extent, John F. Kennedy, and to an even greater extent, LBJ — were past masters of the spin. McNamara himself claims that he never answers the questions he’s asked, but that he addresses those he wishes had been asked.
At one point in the film, McNamara tells us what he would have said when LBJ awarded him the Medal of Freedom, if he hadn’t been too choked up to get it out: “I know what many of you are thinking. You’re thinking, ‘This man is duplicitous.’ You’re thinking that he has held things to his chest. You’re thinking that he did not respond fully to the desires and wishes of the American people. And I want to tell you: You’re wrong.”
I wasn’t sure if McNamara was defending himself or LBJ; I realized, however, that it didn’t matter, since the statement could easily be applied to either man, at least in the former defense secretary’s worldview. Even at 85, McNamara is a force to reckon with — a strange mix of forthrightness and taciturnity. He doesn’t ask for forgiveness for Vietnam (the phrase “I’m sorry” doesn’t seem to be in his lexicon), and by turns accepts responsibility for the war and lays blame for it at the feet of LBJ.
Perhaps Fog‘s most chilling admissions concern WWII and the firebombing of Japan — something Morris drives home by comparing the devastation with similarly sized American cities. It’s particularly gripping when McNamara agrees with Curtis LeMay’s assertion that, had the Allies lost the war, both men would have been tried as war criminals.
This brilliant, uncompromising film should be seen by everyone.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke