To err is human? Fog of War makes its case

There's an interesting juxtaposition on Sony Pictures Classics' release schedule. The Statement and The Fog of War both opened in December for award consideration before rolling out to the rest of the country some time later. They needn't have bothered with The Statement, but The Fog of War went on to win the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in a great year for documentaries.

The Statement is a fictionalized story of a man who, in "following orders," was responsible for seven deaths in World War II. Over 40 years later, he's being hunted as a war criminal.

The Fog of War is the true story of a man who, by influencing others, was responsible for over 100,000 deaths in World War II and many thousands more in Vietnam. After both wars he's practically a hero for admitting his "mistakes" in this film (and a book that was published in 1995).

Former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara admits the irony when quoting his WWII commander, Gen. Curtis LeMay: "LeMay said, 'If we'd lost the war, we'd have all been prosecuted as war criminals.' And I think he's right... but what makes it immoral if you lose but not immoral if you win?"

Subtitled "11 Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara," The Fog of War is a fascinating portrait of a man in his mid-80s trying to improve his standing in the history books and give later generations the chance to learn from his mistakes.

The specific lessons, extrapolated by filmmaker Errol Morris, are a mix of practical advice (#1: Empathize with your enemy), simple truths (#11: You can't change human nature) and vague ideas that require the context the film supplies to make sense (almost everything in between).

Perhaps the most important thing to be learned sounds like a response to recent events, but is McNamara's hindsight-aided reflection on Vietnam: "I do not believe we should ever apply that economic, political, or military power unilaterally.... If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merits of our case, we better re-examine our reasoning."

It's fitting that a man who based world-altering decisions on statistics, logic, and probability should find his lasting impression subject to the whims of a film editor. If there's one thing better able than statistics to prove any desired conclusion, it's film editing.

"The conventional wisdom is learn from your mistakes," McNamara says at the outset. "With nuclear weapons there's no learning period. You destroy nations."

Morris begins with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. "It was luck that saved us," McNamara concludes. "Rational individuals came that close to the destruction of their societies." While he and others urged President Kennedy to exhaust all non-nuclear options, he claims, LeMay "wanted to destroy Cuba."

McNamara paints LeMay and Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, as hawks, and himself as being sympathetic toward peace but sometimes persuaded by circumstances that the use of force would be a more "efficient" way of achieving the desired result.

Just as I was thinking LeMay sounded like something out of Dr. Strangelove, McNamara revealed that his own middle name is Strange, and I knew we had crossed into the Twilight Zone.

The report of McNamara's Statistical Control Department led LeMay to firebomb Tokyo ("I was part of a mechanism that in a sense recommended it"), killing 100,000 in one night, five months before the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

McNamara saved lives when, as president of Ford Motor Company, he pushed for seat belts and other safety features.

The U.S. buildup in Vietnam was ordered by Johnson on McNamara's advice, which in turn was based on reports of attacks on our ships, some of which proved to be false. As we got deeper into it ("Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," as Pete Seeger sang), the pullout of our "military advisors" McNamara had hoped for became impossible. He and LBJ grew "poles apart" in philosophy until he could no longer serve as Secretary of Defense. His tenure ended in 1967 but not unceremoniously.

Whatever influence he may have had, McNamara says war is ultimately "the President's responsibility." His admission of his own mistakes amounts to a cosmic "oops." The only time he shows emotion in the film is when he describes how he selected Kennedy's burial site.

McNamara explains the strategy he used in press conferences– "Never answer the question that has been asked of you. Answer the question you wish had been asked of you"– but he doesn't seem to employ it here. Morris isn't pitching softball questions, but he doesn't become a hostile interviewer, either.

While maybe half the screen time is taken up with McNamara's talking head, and even more of the soundtrack is filled with his musings, Morris is not about to give us a dry history lesson. He's dug up tons of archival footage dating back to 1918 and employs it– along with images he's shot for the occasion– in imaginative ways. The style, including a subtly effective score by Philip Glass, is recognizable from Morris' 1988 breakthrough film, The Thin Blue Line.

I'm not a viewer of the History Channel, and I thought restraints might be required to make me watch 107 minutes of historical testimony, but I found The Fog of War riveting. It's also objective enough that no matter how you feel about war, you'll find something in it to prove your point.