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Plot: Documentary about Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, who subsequently became president of the World Bank. The documentary combines an interview with Mr. McNamara discussing some of the tragedies and glories of the 20th Century, archival footage, documents, and an original score by Philip Glass. Runtime: 95 mins Release Date: 31 Dec 2002
Still Confident and Brilliant, Still Seeking to Hold the Moral High Ground (by lawprof)
My first encounter with Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara was in the late spring of 1966 when, as a young Army Intelligence officer just rotated back from Asia, I was assigned to the General Staff in the Pentagon and directed to brief him. The first of a number of occasions when I either briefed the secretary or, more often, was a resource aide to a senior officer, I was cautioned by a nervous lieutenant colonel to expect questions but never, absolutely never, to ground my response in "intuition." It was the pre-Powerpoint age but all briefers were admonished to either have <more>
facts best supported by charts and numbers or to simply confess ignorance.I acquitted myself reasonably well and there followed almost a year and a half of observing the nation's highest defense officials and generals in the superheated pressure cooker atmosphere of what we called the "Puzzle Palace."Gifted documentarian Errol Morris's "Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara" is a vital and presciently timely examination of a past that can repeat itself with incalculable harm to the United States. Interpolating documentary film clips from World War II through Vietnam with excerpts from an extensive interview with McNamara, the camera always focused on the alert, articulate and still controllingly brilliant eighty-six year old former secretary, Morris quickly takes viewers through his early life getting quickly to World War II. Then as an officer specializing in systems analysis he became a significant analyst whose studies supported the carpet bombing of Japan. His comments about General Curtis "Bombs Away with Curt LeMay" LeMay reflect his transition from wartime admiration for a superb combat leader to distrust of a four-star Air Force chief of staff champing at the opportunity to use nuclear weapons while we still had a commanding edge in what came to be called Mutual Assured Destruction.Interesting and important as McNamara's early war activities were, the crux of his life and the undying source of charge, defense and recrimination is his stewardship of the Defense Department during the early and mid years of the Vietnam conflict.Where Michael Moore wears his views on his sleeve and on the screen through entertaining ridicule and now predictable pillorying of his subjects, Morris wisely and effectively lets McNamara tell his story, prompted by an off-screen inquisitor whose tone is neither hostile nor friendly. The evidence supports McNamara's claim that he sought disengagement during the Kennedy years and he repeats the unprovable belief that J.F.K. would never have permitted the escalation that followed his death McNamara's account of being Kennedy's right-hand cabinet man during the Cuban Missile Crisis can only leave viewers dry-mouthed as the implications of the Cold War cat-and-missile game clearly emerge as truly bringing the specter of nuclear conflagration to near reality .McNamara frames his eleven life lessons, none startling new advances in philosophical thought. He joins many scholars and advocates of binding international law, the majority of whom have never heard a shot fired, in arguing for the concept of proportionality in the exercise of force. He never seems to realize that contemporary armed conflict is very different, politically and militarily, from his wars.While stating sorrow for what war has wrought, and recognizing his own role, he never apologizes and credibly advances his message for the future through the technique of universalizing: mankind has a problem with violence. I was doing the best I could.Tapes of conversations with President Johnson, who eventually fired him with such subtlety that the Defense Secretary had to ask a friend whether he had resigned or been canned, are especially fascinating. Fractal shards of a once close and then disintegrating relationship, the brief excerpts illustrate just how little both the President and McNamara actually knew McNamara made many trips to Vietnam-I remember them well. Each time he came back with a positive spin on what was an unraveling military and political situation .At the Pentagon I was struck by the almost total concurrence McNamara's policies and statements enjoyed among civilian leaders and generals alike. McNamara, I thought then and now, was not a man who needed sycophants. He was simply so sure he was right that it probably never occurred to him to wonder why he rarely encountered disagreement. I particularly remember Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Earle Wheeler as a mindless echoer of the secretary's thoughts.A brilliant documentary and a fair one too. McNamara clearly wants this film to be part of his legacy without it being an apologia.He does admit the United States was wrong in misjudging the nature of Vietnam and its history, wrong about assessing on-the-ground intelligence and wrong in not securing support from nations with traditions and values similar to ours a curious and somewhat Europhilic anachronism . At the end he clearly and brusquely cuts off questions about personal guilt that, I'm sure, he will never be ready to address. Fair enough.I generally dislike any music by Philip Glass but in this film the minimalist score works very well against the documentary images. It would have been a big mistake for Morris to use the folk and protest music of the past.Morris is probably the finest, from an intellectual standpoint, documentarian working today in the U.S.10/10 because of its enduring archival and current thought-provoking value
Honest Account of Important Lessons Learned (by chron)
I just watched the movie the "Fog of War". It is a candid interview with Robert McNamara. He is an 85 year old veteran of WWII and was Secretary of Defense under John Kennedy and Lydon Johnson. Of course, that made him Secretary during the Viet Nam war.It is an amazing account of the lessons learned from a man who lived in interesting times in a powerful position of influence. I get the sense that it is exceptionally honest - about both the success and failures. It was directed by Earl Morris and has a kind of refreshing balance that is NOT present in the films of Michael Moore. I <more>
highly recommend this movie.Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the movie is that the lessons McNamara learned are still not understood by the Bush administration with respect to the Iraq conflict. The parallels to that conflict and the conflict in Iraq are scary. Once of the eleven enumerated lessons are a need to respect and understand the culture of the people with whom you are engaged in conflict. He made the statement that he believes that the reason that the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 ended peacefully was that they reached a point where they really tried to understand the Soviets. The reason that Viet Nam failed is that we never learned to understand the culture of the people of Viet Nam. He also mentioned that none of our allies with largely shared values were opposed to our involvement in Viet Nam. We should have recognized that as a warning sign that perhaps we were doing something wrong.Scary, isn't it!
as intelligent, true and straightforward- but inventive- as documentaries come (by Quinoa1984)
The Fog of War, one of the best film of 2003, is because of the chances that Errol Morris takes with filming his subject, former defense secretary Robert McNamara, combined with the countless images either in montage or slow-motion or brief archival footage mode. It's an assembly of very insightful, if of course not altogether the whole truth and nothing but, interview clips by letting the viewer into the way of thinking of this man who became apart and witness to World War 2, Cuba and Vietnam conflicts. It would be one thing to just have a simple sit-down interview with the man and his <more>
total life and career choices and the like. But just right in the way Morris films McNamara you know you're getting something different. He is shown practically going on in his sharp, raspy 80-something voiced monologues, and he is always looking at the viewer into the camera. It's something a little better than a trick, as it's a special camera set-up where the viewer is given a more personalized take on the subject looking right on. It's left up to the viewer, then, to decide how much is real reflections and honest accounts, or maybe not.It's amazing to see such a man as McNamara go on- holding a great interest- in the cross-sections of his life, which was never planned but taken in stride for better and for lesser times. McNamara's tips, or 'lessons' as they are sectioned off in the film, range from delivering hard facts and even poignant touches. And there are so many lessons that come through the film, not just in the overall point of each segment but in the little marks of knowledge about the nature of mass warfare, conflicting with the other side and the possible empathy needed for it , that sometimes one not living around in that time of McNamara in the white house may wonder how he grew to be disliked in the press and public. Of course, even McNamara has to say "there are some things I can't talk about", and once this is understood what information is given is presented in a very nifty way. Sometimes even still images showing McNamara listening or talking to his Presidents speak many words. The symbolism is great, too, as dominoes fall, or reverse.The Fog of War succeeds so well in presenting McNamara's reflections and stories and accounts, it even borders on being emotional, or having at least a sentiment not sentimentality about the many errors in human judgment in times of crisis. When he talks of people who were rather flawed like Curtis Le May, it's with a kind of logic though that measures out the wrong with what was at least considered right. The morals of men under pressure are a big component in the film, and as the Vietnam section rolls along- and a lesson learned from the Cuba crisis is left by the wayside- it becomes as close to shocking as the PG-13 film could get. For all of the mistakes or faults in judgment or of the dreaded uncertain times McNamara found himself in with those around him, there was good accomplished as well, if for the future to see. One of the best moments in the film is when the former defense man tells of a meeting he had in 1995 with an old Vietnam leader, who has to set the record straight for him to understand the real core of conflict. Such moments have a haunting resonance that also acts in other sections of the film.That all of the stories are fascinating, and then wrapped in this expertly edited style of old clips as well as ultra-rare audio tapes from inside the white house with Phillip Glass's better than usual score, only adds to its appeal. It's straightforward in that it is quite the subjective document and testimony, but it's also a unique film for how it pushes into demanding its audience be smart enough to grasp all that McNamara, and Morris, have in mind. It's the kind of film, too, that I watch almost any time it's on TV.
Educated in the best Ivy League schools, successful leaders in the business world, they were the best and the brightest, the core of John F. Kennedy's administration. They came to office in 1961 with high hopes that the world would become a better place. When they left, these expectations lay shattered amidst the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam. Considered the architect of what came to be known as "McNamara's War", Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense under both Kennedy and Johnson, was one of the brightest but had the reputation of being aloof and arrogant. This <more>
public image, however, may not have been the whole story. In the fascinating Oscar-nominated documentary, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, Errol Morris The Thin Blue Line, Dr. Death interviews the now 86-year old Defense Secretary in an effort to come to terms with what led to the quagmire of Vietnam and reveals a more complex, even strangely sympathetic man.Interspersed with archival footage, actual news broadcasts, and tape-recorded conversations from the period, the interview documents McNamara's personal account of his involvement with American policy from WW II to the 1960s. Culled from 20 hours of tape, the interview is separated into eleven segments corresponding to lessons learned during his life such as "Empathize with your enemy", and "Rationality will not save us". The Secretary does not apologize for the war, saying he was only trying to serve an elected President but is willing to admit his mistakes. He says that he now realizes the Vietnam conflict was considered by the North Vietnamese to be a civil war and that they were fighting for the independence of their country from colonialism, something opponents of the war had been trying to tell him for over five years . Morris never undercuts McNamara's dignity or pushes him into a corner yet also does not slide troubling questions under the rug and there are some questions McNamara does not want to discuss. Though his reputation is that of a hawk, previously unheard tape-recorded conversations between McNamara and both Presidents reveal that he urged caution and opposed the continued escalation of the Vietnam War. In 1964, we hear Johnson say. "I always thought it was foolish for you to make any statements about withdrawing, but you and the President thought otherwise, and I just sat silent." McNamara also discusses his role in World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his accomplishments as President of the Ford Motor Company. In talking about Cuba, he reveals how close the world came to nuclear annihilation, saved only by the offhand suggestion by an underling. McNamara repeats over and over again, demonstrating with his fingers, how close we all came to nuclear war. He talks openly about his involvement in World War II under General Curtis Le and how he helped plan the firebombing of 67 Japanese cities including Tokyo in which 100,000 Japanese civilians were killed. In a startling admission, he says that if the allies had not won the war, both he and Le May could have been tried as war criminals. Mr. McNamara has spoken out a bit late to save the lives of 50,000 Americans and several million Vietnamese but at least he has spoken and we can learn from his reflections. Though the Secretary does not apologize for the war, saying he was only trying to serve an elected President, to his credit he has looked at the corrosiveness of war and what it does to the human soul and we are left with the sense of a man who has come a long way. While his lesson that "In order to do good, one may have to do evil" sounds suspiciously like "the end justifies the means", his sentiments are clear that the U.S. should never invade another country without the support of its friends and allies. He says, "We are the strongest nation in the world today", he says, "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." A valuable lesson indeed.
If you possess an especially smug view of history's finality, this film may not do a great deal to impress you. For the rest of us, however, Errol Morris presents a truly complex picture of a clearly complex man.Many of the reviews I read of the film complain that there doesn't seem to be a main point that emerges from the film or its eleven "lessons," which are admittedly too cute by half in many cases. The point, though, is the complexity itself. The point is that history is bigger than its main players, and inscrutably difficult to judge in a definitive moral sense. I <more>
don't think I will ever forget McNamara's probing, clearly emotional questioning of the rules of war or the lack thereof, when he discusses how one evening he and general Curtis LeMay decided to burn to death 100,000 people in the Tokyo firebombing. The portrait of McNamara, as well as the two presidents he served, is one of human beings through and through, with all the fallibility and conflictedness that entails. The central quandary of war emerges for the viewer to see: it is the business of killing people, and that means that mistakes cause people to die needlessly.As I said, this film, taken in the right spirit, is deeply challenging. I would recommend it to anyone who has grappled with the enormity and awfulness of the history of the twentieth century.
Everyone should see this, if only to transcend the myth of absolute morality. This is no Kissinger or Bush, but an intelligent and reflective man who truly wants to understand his context. Both he and the filmmaker are experienced at bending reality around them to make sense.Everyone lives in their own movie. Some strong people can convince others to adopt their movie, which is what much of religion/politics has become today. McNamara is a master at getting others to adopt his movie, but he never was adept at building a complex internal narrative himself.Now, late in life, he's interested <more>
in finding out what such composition is all about. He was able to escape this need when entering Ford. All he had to do was absorb the "movie" of the relevant world and master it. In the business world, there already was a well-formed narrative, that one invented by Wall Street financiers that involved certain metrics and calculations. This was absorbed and mastered by Mac with little effort: all went into imposing it on those at Ford who by all accounts had no sense or narrative.The point is that he could sell a "story" derived from the greater story of the context. All his methods get the facts and so on pertain to these two tasks. The substance of this documentary is the battle between two narratives to impose a story on events that seemingly had none. Nothing wrong with that; that's how history is invented. But we get to see a struggle here between two strong minds, each rooted in a different context.And I have to reluctantly say I'm on the side of the war criminal. The filmmaker has the consensus of the people on his side: Vietnam was a misguided mess base largely on an imagined threat and involving lies to the populace. It was more costly than any war in US history excepting the Civil war in terms of what it prevented from being addressed. Under Nixon, it formed the basis for large-scale mistrust of government which dominates today.The lies, imagined threat, mistrust and opportunity cost are the "truth" of the day, as solid as any and that's why the lessons of Vietnam are thrown at the current situation in Iraq. The filmmaker also has control over the images and the way the whole thing is presented. By all rights, he should win.Mac has reflection on his side. Yes, he participated in the events: we get all sorts of qualifying background here: Lemay, firebombing, Ford, Kennedy. In that day, he was warrior of the narrative, what would later be known as "spin" and "on message." But he's not that now. Now he is not a seller of the movie but an inventor, rather a reinventor. No historical figure has gone to as much effort to understand the context of their important prior actions. He's met the Russians, the Vietnamese, the Chinese, the Cubans. Instead of explaining away their "movies" he's adapted his own. He's clearly doubting his own rock.Between these two approaches to narrative: the filmmaker's certainty and Mac's certain uncertainty, both struggle for control over the movie we see. Mac wins. All history becomes fluid.There's a much quoted utterance here where he says if the US had lost the war, he would be tried as a criminal. Quoters of that impose their own truth on it and focus on the "war criminal" part. But the other half is by far more interesting and complex: the winners create the narrative, the history, the movie.The real wiz kids both live in their own movie and question it.Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.
Where are you when we need you? A President from Texas acts upon faulty intelligence and gets the endorsement of Congress to use whatever force is necessary and then invades a country whose destiny is more or less irrelevant to the security of the United States. The war generates opposition at home and abroad. The President's domestic programs are cut in order to fund the war. Fifty thousand American lives are lost, and countless indigents die, despite the application of America's high tech weaponry. Having committed himself, not to mention the troops, the President is unable to back <more>
down because he doesn't want to lose. "Cut and run" is the expression he uses. In the end the country is united under an anti-American government and forgotten about.This really should be required viewing for voters who may not remember, or may not choose to remember, Vietnam. Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it, to roughly quote George Santayana. It's easy to get into a war, and much harder to get out.And we should bear in mind that the subject of this interview, Robert Macnamara, didn't stand on the sidelines. He was at the center of the Vietnam conflict, which lasted about ten years. He was Secretary of Defense during eight of those years, until fired by Johnson for his increasingly public dissent. He organized the logistics of the war, gave JFK and Johnson advice. Sometimes the conflict was referred to as "MacNamara's War." So he's nobody's idea of an armchair analyst.The most telling and relevant moment comes at the beginning, during the Cuban missile crisis of October, 1962. President Kennedy has received a letter from Chairman Krushchov, saying, basically, that if the US promises not to invade Cuba, the Soviet missiles will be withdrawn. Then a second letter arrives, taking a much harder line than the first, implying a Soviet attack on America.What to do? Curtis LeMay, the Chief of Staff, thinks that since a war with the USSR is inevitable, let's begin it now while we have a 17 to one missile superiority. Another adviser suggests responding to the first, softer letter, while ignoring the second one. Kennedy demurs. What will that get us? He doesn't want to be seen as backing down. The adviser tells him, "Mister President, you're wrong about that." MacNamara comments, "That took guts." Kennedy finally gives in and agrees to follow the diplomatic route and responds to letter number one only. We wind up dismantling some obsolete missile bases in Turkey and in exchange the Soviets withdraw their missiles and war is averted. Who is the sage who would now tell the President, if a similar situation arose, that he was wrong? MacNamara comes across as a sympathetic and compassionate guy. He cusses a bit and his eyes tear up when he remembers picking out JFK's grave site in Arlington National Cemetery. He also describes -- without at all boasting about it -- his valuable contributions to the bombing campaigns of World War II.I don't see any bias in Errol Morris's editing, although who knows what wound up on the cutting room floor? It's MacNamara's show all the way and he's candid, keeps the secrets he feels necessary, and never loses dignity. He wrote a book about his period in office admitting that he'd made many mistakes in the run-up to and execution of the Vietnam War. The general reception by the liberal reviewers was that apologies weren't enough. Nothing was enough. The reviewers showed a lot less in the way of compassion than MacNamara shows here.The music is by Philip Glass, who is neat. It's hard to comment on the photography because so much of the footage is from newsreels or TV. It's a fine documentary and ought to be shown in political science classes. It should keep the students interested because it blends the human element with the political. The statistics that were so important to the President of the Ford Motor Company and the Secretary of Defense don't play much of a part in this documentary. What will keep the class attentive is the reenactment of all those human skulls bouncing down the staircase of a dormitory at Cornell University.
a sort of grunt's-eye view of history (by cherold)
This is an interesting documentary precisely because it makes so little effort to put McNamara's actions in a larger historical context. We catch glimpses of the world's opinion of McNamara in MTV-fast clips from newspapers, but mainly this is McNamara in his own words. He is thoughtful and quite bright, but even though he was an architect of a war, in a way his is the soldier's view of battle. In a way the soldier only sees a portion of the battle, McNamara gives us a very specific view of history. He is an intriguing character, interested in the complexities and ambiguities of <more>
action, admitting at one point that he could be realistically considered a war criminal but often skirting responsibility for his decisions. He comes across not as duplicitous but as simply limited to a view of the world informed by his particular place in it, which is true of most of us. A documentary about McNamara could have shown other viewpoints and given a very different perspective on the man, but it's fascinating to just hear this one intelligent if biased perspective.Morris does a better job than usual of staying out of his own film's way. I have always found him intolerably gimmicky, but here his restless editing actually works, and for once I even like a Philip Glass score, which helps the film sustain its melancholy tone. This is not to say that I didn't get sick of his endless slow motion shots of historical incidents or didn't wish he would display press clippings at a speed where I could actually read them all, but overall the film is very effective.
Insider documentary of the life of former Defense Secretary of the United States Robert Strange McNamara. Who served under both the JFK & LBJ administrations from 1961 to 1968 as well as being the president of the World Bank for thirteen years from 1968 to 1981. Robert McNamara candidly and honestly talks about his life and actions as a man of power in both the political and industrial world and about his life that began when he was born on June 9, 1916 in San Francisco Calif. Growing up during the Great Depression of the 1930's and early 40's McNamara became the youngest <more>
assistant professor in the history of Harvard. With the start of WWII and Americas entry into it in late 1941 he worked in the office of the US Army Statistical Control and was confronted with how to win the war in the Pacific with the use of air power. Getting to know Gen. Curtis LeMay of the USAAF McNamara and his team of statisticians together with Gen LeMay devised a plan for the massive B29 bombers, who were built to fly as high as 30,000 feet over their targets, to fly under 5,000 feet. Since Japans anti-aircraft defenses were destroyed to the point where they were almost non-existent at that time ,late 1944. The low flying tactic's of B-29's were used in order to be more accurate in dropping incendiary or fire bombs on Japan. The results were devastating with the giant and deadly B29's in just under ten months, from November 1944 to early August 1945, burning out as much as to 90% of 67 major Japanese cities and killing well over 600,000, some experts of WWII put the dead to be well over a million, Japanese civilians during that time. That's even before the dropping of the Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th 1945.McNamara says that talking with Gen. LeMay about the bombings of Japan that the general honestly told him that what he and McNamara did was enough to convict them as war criminals in an international court of law! Like the Germans and Japanese government and military officials were in the war crime trials in Nuremberg and Tokyo. The only difference between Gen. LeMay & McNamara and the Germans & Japanese was that they were on the winning side of the war and could not be called to answer for what they did by the defeated Axis powers.McNamara also brings out a shocking revelation about the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis in a talk he had with the Cuban President Fidel Castro in Havana in 1992. Castro told him that he had at that time, October 1962, on the Island of Cuba 162 Soviet Nuclear warheads that Soviet Premier Krushcheve had already placed there. With 94 of them that were already mounted on Soviet rockets ready to be launched and targeted for major US cities. At that time the US president John F. Kennedy thought that the Soviets rockets or missiles only had conventional warheads and that the "Nukes" were on their way to Cuba via the Red Navy which was blocked from entering the Island by the US Atlantic flee. In fact we were much closer to Nuclear Armageddon then we realized back then. The last half of the film is about Robert McNamara's involvement in the war in Vietnam. What really astounded me was how as early as October 2, 1963, less then two months before he was assassinated, Pres. Kennedy told McNamara that the war was not winnable and planed to totally withdraw US troops from South Vietnam, there were 16,000 there at that time, by Feb. 1965 after the 1964 election if he were re-elected. Even in his talks with Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson as early as Feb. 1964 the talk was that the war, like Pres. Kennedy said before, was a lost cause. Still LBJ and McNamara continued pushing it to the point where it ended up costing the US military over 60,000 dead and missing and over 350,000 wounded by the time the war ended for the US in Jan. 1973. With over 3.5 million Vietnamese lives, both from North and South Vietnam, by the time the Communist North Vietnamese captured Saigon on April 30-May 1, 1975. Getting all these personal insights and information from someone who had a lot to do with the conduct of the war in Vietnam as well as the planning for it like Robert McNamara is a real eye-opener. Hopefully we can learn like he did that the road to hell is paved with good intentions not all but, like in Vietnam, most of the time.