Robert N. McNamara stands as one of the most vilified men of the
Vietnam Establishment era. As much as he is hated, his importance
demands that he be understood and remembered. Errol Morris’s
latest documentary examines the complexity surrounding
McNamara’s life and reflects on the many careers he has
pursued.

Julie Pannuto
Talk to the hand. (Courtesy of Sony)

As a president of the World Bank, the first non-Ford to run the
Ford Motor Company, a Kennedy administration member during the
Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Secretary of Defense who helped
engineer the Vietnam War, the man is living history. He has held
more prominent positions than most could hope for in several
lifetimes.

In sharp contrast to the shock-and-awe Michael Moore style of
documentary, Morris’s film, “Fog of War,” is a
collected sit-down interview with more conversation than
interrogation. Even though the bulk of the movie is conducted face
to camera, the movie stays above the monotony of the talking-head
picture with an atmospheric and immediate score by Philip Glass,
archival footage interspersed expertly throughout McNamara’s
recollections as well as remarkable graphics and visuals mirroring
the issues being discussed.

Often criticized as being a cold and calculating politician with
a detached personality, it is incredible to see his reassessment of
the Tokyo firebombing for its brutality and admit that had America
lost World War II, those involved with the firebombing would have
been tried as war criminals. His memories of implementing seatbelts
into the early Ford cars as well as the behind-the-scenes details
of how close America came to full nuclear war with Cuba give a
personal face to what eventually becomes the musty pages of a
history book. To capture the earnest thought process of a man who
shaped domestic policy for decades is undeniably powerful.

The Tokyo fire bombing is only one of the many revelations he
shares during the film. McNamara has so much knowledge, in fact,
that the film is loosely focused on 11 life lessons extrapolated
from the interview. All of these revelations come as strangely
prophetic, especially since the interview was conducted well before
the Iraqi inspections and eventual war. Lesson No. 8: “Be
prepared to re-examine your reasoning.”

What is most interesting is that after all this time, he still
has not come to full terms with his guilt over Vietnam, or at least
not on camera. In Morris’s most probing questions to
McNamara, the ex-Secretary of Defense answers, “I’m
damned if I do, damned if I don’t, I’d rather be damned
if I don’t.” He is obviously trapped by the
restrictions of secrecy, but he is still learning from his
mistakes. Lives and films like this are captured so others may
learn from them and do not have to make the same mistakes.

Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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