© The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. Macnamara — Errol Morris/Sony Pictures Classics
2003, 95 minutes
With The Fog of War, Errol Morris delves deep into the complexity of the human psyche, examining the life and actions of one of the most influential and controversial figures of his time: Robert Strange McNamara.
A former president of Ford Automotive Company and Secretary of Defense for both Kennedy and Johnson, McNamara—aged 85 in the film—offers his account of some of the most politically charged events of the last century, as he remembers participating in them. Here, Morris achieves what he was not able to do prior; that is, to organize the movie around one individual and exclusively focus on his testimony as sole narrator of the film. McNamara’s subjectivity and personal memories become opportunities for Morris to investigate the internal ways in which his subject sees and tries to grapple with the outside world—and the implications of his mindset in the devastating decisions made under his control. Arguably qualifying for prosecution as war criminal by his own uncomfortable admission, McNamara repeatedly dismissed principles of international humanitarian law—like the rule of proportionality—in the name of instrumental rationality. A ‘heartless’ bureaucrat obsessed with producing quantifiable results, McNamara surely epitomizes the idea that great evil may arise from the false assumptions of otherwise rational beings.
Cut from more than twenty hours of interview footage, The Fog of War is structured around eleven lessons that Morris has plucked out of McNamara’s observations. These lessons—all rippling with irony in their contradictions, according to Morris—allow the audience to better understand the mindset in which McNamara operates, and the possible limitations of his expertise. “Get the data” and “Maximize efficiency,” for example, provide an introspective view of McNamara’s highly calculated way of thinking, while simultaneously revealing the disastrous consequences—in Japan or Vietnam—of his single-minded emphasis on quantifiable data. Other lessons like number eleven, “You can’t change human nature,” are decisively more ambiguous, especially put in contrast with the alleged repentance of the subject in this confessional with the camera. In order to better investigate the interplay between history and subjectivity, the chronology of the film is fragmented, woven in a temporal back-and forth that connects distant events in time. This subjective juxtaposition of time creates a space for critical reflection, allowing the audience to further reflect upon McNamara’s observations, and their relevance in today’s world.
As noted above, McNamara’s running commentary functions as the backbone of the film’s narrative structure. Yet while he admits guilt in some instances (“we behave like war criminals”), and even breaks down at other times (as he talks about the death of President Kennedy or the negative toll on his family caused by his high profile position), McNamara is still very much in control, presenting a side of history that may diverge from the historical truth in an effort at self-preservation. While some have criticized Morris—an anti-war protester during the height of the Vietnam War—for allowing McNamara’s testimony to go unchallenged, the film’s formal voice is actually not McNamara’s, despite being the only person interviewed. Morris employs in The Fog of War a wide range of stylistic devices that investigate the claims made by the narrator, and questions their veracity. Herein, we will examine some of the devices used by Morris to create distance from McNamara, his subject.
When discussing issues of truth and subjectivity in The Fog of War, one should first note that McNamara’s influence on the film’s structure as sole narrator does not hinder Morris’s ability to conduct an independent character study of his subject. Although Morris remains off-screen throughout the movie—his voice being the sole indicator of his physical presence—his control over McNamara’s power of representation is clearly apparent. Starting with the opening scene, a grainy television recording from a 1960s press conference, in which a young McNamara, standing beside a map of Vietnam, is preparing to speak about the war. As he adjusts the height of the chart, we can hear him ask the people gathered in the room whether they can see the map clearly or would like it lowered. He then directly asks the TV Crew whether everything is “ready—all set?”. Morris then abruptly cuts to black, music by Philip Glass begins, and the credit sequence starts rolling. To begin to access McNamara’s subjectivity, Morris here explicitly presents ways in which McNamara is constantly performing. Moments later, McNamara—now much older—appears again, this time in Morris’s studio using the Interrotron. He proceeds to ask Morris if he is ready, the latter replying with frustrated affirmation before cutting the image back to black again. McNamara then declares: “Now I remember exactly the sentence I left off on, I remember how it started. You can fix it up some way. I don’t want to go back and introduce the sentence, because I know exactly what I wanted to say.” By not “fixing” it, Morris is actively fighting the constructed persona McNamara wants to present and fully wresting control of McNamara’s representation away from him.
As the opening also announces, Morris uses archival video and audio footage throughout the movie to help contextualise McNamara’s persona and commentaries. Whether McNamara speaks of his youth during WWI, his involvement in the firebombing of Tokyo, or the escalation of the Vietnam War two decades later, historical documents often conform to his words in surprisingly precise synchronicity. These documents also expose at times some of the contradictions and mistakes in McNamara’s narrative, opening interpretations about the (un)reliability of his own subjectivity. Talking about his involvement in the firebombing of Tokyo, McNamara at one point tries to absolve himself from some of the responsibility, arguing to the camera “I don’t want to suggest that it was I who put in [United States Air Force General Curtis] LeMay’s mind that his operations were totally inefficient and [had] to be drastically changed. But anyhow, that’s what he did.” Morris follows this denial of guilt with a montage of McNamara’s signatures on official documents. Though the signatures do not explicitly and conclusively undermine McNamara’s claims about the limited impact of his recommendations to LeMay, the montage suggests that McNamara may have been more influential than what he presently recalls in front of Morris’s camera.
Finally, Morris repeatedly employs ironic visualisations and powerful metaphors to take distance from McNamara. Dominos falling over a map of Asia for example, not only illustrate the Cold War foreign policy theory on the influence of communism, but also expose the erroneous assumptions that led to the escalation of the war in Vietnam. Ultimately, the most chilling and horrifying images in The Fog of War are numbers; blue digits falling out like bombs over the city of Tokyo. After a dramatic sequence that links each of the 67 Japanese cities bombarded during the war with American cities of comparable size and population, the blue grease-penciled numbers come as a powerful reminder of the limitations of McNamara’s analytical mind.
By elevating instrumental rationality over other alternative analytical approaches—McNamara used numbers to somehow ‘depoliticize’ politics, removing conrstraining issues from the realm of ethics to the domain of seemingly objective, scientific problem solving. In converting the “unthinkable” into a technical and impersonal resource allocation problem, he allowed the banality of evil to permeate the Department of Defense, resulting in the unnecessary implementation of countless devastating policies in Japan and Vietnam.
Ultimately though, The Fog of War—one part lecture, one part confessional—is also a story of repentance, with McNamara admitting some failures of imagination and wrongdoings during his time in Washington. At least, McNamara appears somewhat capable of self-analysis and self-criticism—something not many other politician have been inclined to do.