April 23rd, 2009
The Fog of War, Errol Morris’s documentary about the life and life-lessons of Robert McNamara, won the 2004 Academy Award for best documentary and continues to attract interest. Will it withstand the test of time and, fifty years from now be regarded as a classic?
Only time will tell, of course, and the best I can do now is predict.
The Fog of War is an extended interview of Robert McNamara, former President of Ford Motors, US Defense Secretary from 1961 to 1968, and World Bank President from 1968 to 1981. The movie begins with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and then cycles back to McNamara’s childhood and moves forward chronologically, but with its major emphasis on the most controversial – and traumatic – period in his life, his role in the Vietnam War.
Morris used his unique interview technology in which he and McNamara confronted one another directly through the lenses of video cameras. The audience thus sees McNamara looking it in the eyes, rather than watching McNamara and the interviewer conversing, shot from a standard vantage point above one of the interviewer’s shoulders.
McNamara was 85 years old at the time the film was made, but still enormously lucid, forceful, and controlling. The film represents a struggle for control of the narrative between McNamara and Morris, particularly with regard to the Vietnam War. McNamara wants to discuss the lessons of Vietnam while avoiding, or at least minimizing, personal responsibility, while Morris wants to confront McNamara with his personal responsibility, regardless how uncomfortable it makes him. It is for the audience to decide who prevailed.
This confrontation is enhanced because Morris makes considerable use of archival footage, so we continuously see pictures of a younger and more self-confident and energetic McNamara that contrast with the stooped and self-questioning older man.
Morris – wisely in my view – chooses not to devote too much screen time to his aged though animated and articulate interviewee. Approximately three-quarters of the time we are looking at archival footage of the events McNamara is discussing. This includes pictures of armaments, military operations in Vietnam, McNamara on field trips to Vietnam, and Ford automobiles and advertising during the Fifties. Morris often uses visual collages, for example rapid-fire views of the text of the Defense Department’s quantitative analyses of the Vietnam war interspersed with pictures of the horrors of jungle fighting, or collages of newspaper articles criticizing McNamara increasingly vociferously as the war goes on. Accompanying the visuals, and often serving as a background to McNamara’s voice, is a musical score by Philip Glass. Glass’s music is never clich