The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)
Directed by: Errol Morris
Written by: Errol Morris
Starring: Robert S. McNamara
The greatest documentary subjects often tend to be the most divisive and controversial ones. Usually without agenda or bias, they instead challenge viewers to think outside the box and reconsider their own personal positions and points of view. Errol Morris’ Oscar-winning documentary The Fog of War pushes this idea even further. Consisting of a 105-minute interview with Robert S. McNamara, former Secretary of Defense of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, The Fog of War is more stylish, revealing, and honest than most docs could ever hope to be. McNamara brings with him a list of eleven critical lessons he learned during his time serving the United States of America, and makes an excellent case for his and his colleague’s often controversial actions. In many cases, his eleven lessons can be considered for universal use, and not just for those in high-ranking positions of power.
McNamara comes across as a genuine and truly down to earth man with nothing more to lose. His political career is behind him, and it’s clear that he has reflected on the actions of his government and his country that came in a time of great confusion and turmoil. He is transparent and never afraid to admit when somebody was in the wrong, using a vast knowledge of history and terrific anecdotal evidence to backup his claims. McNamara frequently tells the camera that it was sheer blind luck that got the United States and Russia through the Cold War without starting a nuclear war. The former Secretary of Defense gives chilling recollections of the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of JFK and the subsequent inauguration of Lyndon Johnson, and America’s entry in Vietnam and the immediate mess that situation would become. Stories like these leave a long-lasting impression with viewers because of how genuinely terrifying they are, and really puts the role of government into perspective. Nothing is black and white for those in charge; at the end of the day, regardless of education, wealth, or status, we’re all just feeling our way through the dark.
The film’s fascinating subject aside, director Errol Morris is a major reason why The Fog of War works nearly as well as it does. He shows tremendous restraint by allowing McNamara to speak his mind, especially since he often doesn’t seem to have any sort of script or agenda. He lets his subject stumble, pause, and go back in his own timeline to clarify facts and anecdotes, and adds a great deal of humanization to somebody who is considered to be very divisive and controversial. Morris’ veteran eye for details and penchant for storytelling shine just as bright as they did in his earlier masterpiece The Thin Blue Line. It’s clear that he’s matured as a filmmaker and a storyteller in the years since that film, but his trademarks are still there. He manages to turn an interview with this controversial figure into a very intimate and revealing experience – something Morris seems to have a knack for. The Fog of War tackles incredibly complex topics like human nature, conflict resolution, acting under pressure and scrutiny, and most importantly our taste for war and appetite for destruction. He adds to McNamara’s storytelling by using archival footage and stylized graphics and inserts, making The Fog of War constantly interesting from both visual and narrative standpoints. Backing up Errol Morris’ expert direction is a typically haunting (and sometimes playful) score by frequent collaborator Philip Glass. The film’s soundtrack adds weight to McNamara’s anecdotes and Morris’ direction, turning the film into a truly unforgettable experience. Today, The Fog of War is considered to be one of Errol Morris’ greatest accomplishments, and perhaps one of the most important documentaries of the 2000’s. It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2004, as well as an Independent Spirit Award. Robert McNamara passed away in 2009 at the age of 93, leaving an incredible legacy behind him – he is still to this day the longest acting Secretary of Defense in US history.
What I Liked:
- Robert McNamara is an incredibly fascinating and well-spoken subject. His points are all delivered clearly and concisely, and his anecdotes are riveting.
- The “11 lessons” structure really adds to the pacing of the film, but doesn’t detract from McNamara’s interview at all.
- Errol Morris’ interview style is up-close and personal and very intimate. By the end of the film, you really feel like you understand McNamara.
- Philip Glass’ score is incredible – haunting, tense, and just a tiny bit playful. Would work perfectly in a spy film.
- The use of archival footage never distracts from the interview, but adds tremendous weight to the picture – especially when dealing with the subjects of nuclear war or Vietnam.
- Morris often chimes in from behind the camera, sometimes asking questions or calling for clarification, and it always helps to alleviate things a little.
- Every single one of Robert McNamara’s eleven lessons are relevant and important to leaders around the world. They deal with empathy, rationality, efficiency, data, good and evil, and human nature, and every single one resonates after the credits roll.
Errol Morris’ The Fog of War could have easily been another dull, lifeless, lost in the crowd interview documentary – but the end result is so much more than that. Morris created a masterpiece using simple direction, incredible archival footage, a brilliant score, and one hell of a subject. It’s intimate, important, startling, informative, and powerful. Robert McNamara is one of the most interesting documentary subjects in the history of the medium, and the importance of his messages cannot be understated. You don’t have to be a history buff to take something away from The Fog of War, you only need to be human. Errol Morris’ The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara gets my highest recommendation.