Conventional wisdom used to have it that an Oscar was worth an extra million dollars in box office receipts. But that was a decade or two ago, and probably applied only to mainstream feature films.

I saw veteran documentary filmmaker Errol Morris's latest work, "The Fog of War," two days after it won the 2004 Academy Award for the Best Documentary. There were only three of us in the audience. Granted, it was a mid-afternoon screening on a Tuesday, but still I have to wonder whether that golden statuette will translate into bigger bucks for this film.

Not to say "The Fog of War" doesn't deserve wider business. Morris proved long ago that anything he shoots is worth seeing, and the surprise is that his work had never even been nominated for an Oscar before.

The subtitle is "Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara." For those who did not live through those years, McNamara was the Berkeley- and Harvard-educated whiz kid who did statistical analysis to improve World War II bombing strategy, became a high-level executive with Ford, most infamously served as Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson as the Vietnam War escalated, and then headed the World Bank for 13 years.

The film consists of crisply edited interviews with the 85-year-old McNamara, TV news excerpts of press conferences and news reports from the 1960s, still photos of Kennedy's cabinet to illustrate taped meetings during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the developing mess in Vietnam, footage of World War II bombing runs and air attacks over Vietnam, close-ups of an Uher reel-to-reel as we listen to taped phone conversations between LBJ and his Defense Secretary, and repeated and rapid series of shots that focus on critical words in reports, headlines, and numerals from statistical studies.

Originally, McNamara agreed to do an hour-long interview for Morris's 2000 PBS series "First Person." The interview lasted eight hours, the subject stayed for a second day of shooting, and he rejoined Morris several months later for two more days of interviews. Obviously, the filmmaker ended up with sufficient material for a feature.

McNamara evidently didn't pick which "lessons" he felt he had learned; rather, Morris plucked them out of his subject's running commentary to emblazon on screen and give the film the semblance of a structure. Some rise to the level of philosophy and are well covered ("Lesson #2: Rationality will not save us," "Lesson #7: Belief and seeing are both often wrong,") while others seem obvious, trivial, or poorly supported ("Lesson #4: Maximize efficiency," "Lesson #6: Get the data," "Lesson #10: Never say never").

Lesson #11 is "You can't change human nature," which is an opinion, not a lesson that McNamara or his experiences can illustrate. Lesson #9 seems particularly inapropos: "In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil." The point is perhaps debatable in the case of World War II and the undeniably immoral things the Allies did, but McNamara says this after he's well into his discussion of the Vietnam years, and I don't think he or anyone else can point to anything substantially "good" that came out of our involvement there.

(Moreover, McNamara resorts to popular myth to make the point. According to him, Union General William Sherman said "war is cruelty" and torched Atlanta after the mayor pleaded with the conqueror to spare the city. This is not exactly accurate. Sherman ordered military and industrial structures burned, but expressly forbade his soldiers to harm residential property -- offenders were to be shot on the spot -- and patrolled the city with his officers to prevent arson and vandalism. Historians disagree on whether flames spread from targeted structures to the rest of the city by accident, or mischievous parties set the fires, but what happened was clearly contrary to Sherman's orders. Similarly, it is well established, despite the stories spread by Southern sympathizers ever since about Sherman's infamous march, that during the rest of the army's trek across Georgia, the bluecoats spent more time putting out fires set by retreating Confederates who were trying to prevent property and materiel from falling into federal hands, than actually setting fires themselves.)

Philip Glass is not the composer that comes to mind for a project like this, yet his daintily menacing score turns out to be perfect. Morris adds occasional stylistic bits to the archival clips. During the bombing of Japan, he shows numerals plummeting toward black-and-white aerial footage of Japanese cities, as well as actual bombing runs. While McNamara describes his work at Ford in the 1950s, trying to make cars "safer envelopes" for the human meat inside, Morris recreates the engineers' experiments dropping human skulls wrapped in cloth down a stairwell. Such startling visual reminders help break the soothing, rational monotony of McNamara's voice and the cool reports and numbers.

Obviously, McNamara participated in Morris's film as part of an ongoing project to understand his past, perhaps even to absolve himself before the American public -- a process he took to the new Vietnam in the early 1990s as well as in his 1995 autobiography. And despite flashes of candor, stabs at objectivity or fairness, he repeatedly backs away from the precipice. One accepts the sincerity of this extremely intelligent man's desire to make sense of his tumultuous life and times, and to make a fair accounting, yet time and again he falls short.

After bravely declaring that in a single night, "we burned to death a hundred thousand Japanese men, women, and children" in the firebombing of Tokyo, McNamara says something about not trying to absolve himself. Morris shows us a series of "R.S. McNamara" signatures at the bottom of period documents (although we have no idea what they are authorizing).

In discussing "Lesson #5: Proportionality should be a guideline in war," McNamara indignantly cites a series of Japanese cities that were partially or largely destroyed (cities aside from the familiar Tokyo, Yokohama, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki), matches them to American cities of comparable size, and asks us to imagine those U.S. communities similarly ravaged. It's a strong point, graphically supported by Morris on screen by flashing names and statistics at accelerating speed, but then McNamara says, this "is not proportional, in the minds of some people, to the objectives we were trying to achieve." In the minds of some people, certainly, but what's his conclusion?

A moment later he offers the strongest potential self-indictment of the film: "[General Curtis] LeMay [who was a colonel in a B-24 squadron in the Second World War] said if we had lost the war, we would have been prosecuted as war criminals. And I think he's right. . . . What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?" Yet he also employs the standard excuses for Vietnam: we were in the middle of the Cold War, we truly believed it was a domino, I was only following the orders of my President, etc.

Sometimes you just want to shake the man and say, listen to yourself! The stress of his years as Defense Secretary gave his son and his wife ulcers, he says, and may even have hastened her death, but those were the best years of their lives (he has already said much same of their first years of marriage, before he ever did any government work). "It was terrific," he concludes of the job that nearly broke him and may forever blacken his name in history.

A curious, odd codependency between Johnson and McNamara surfaces but is never really addressed. Each shows signs of understanding they and their nation are out of their depth and headed down a very wrong road. McNamara repeatedly tells us he thought the U.S. should withdraw; when it comes to following up Operation Rolling Thunder, the bombing campaign, with a Marine incursion, Johnson tells McNamara, "My answer is 'yes,' but my judgment is 'no' ". Yet somehow they continued to hurtle down that fatal highway. Why?

Morris asks McNamara if he ever felt he was the instrument of events that were outside of his control. The subject answers no, he was merely carrying out the instructions of a President elected by the people, and therefore the will of the people. The unasked question is: How can you continue to believe or assert you are serving the will of the people when you lie to them (e.g., about what's going on in Southeast Asia, or trying to assassinate a Castro or Allende, or whether you have solid proof of the existence of weapons of mass destruction)?

If you're tempted to view McNamara as a hero for our time for trying to come clean, Morris concludes "The Fog of War" with the man driving out of the film and in effect fleeing the microphone while Morris asks if McNamara feels at all responsible or guilty for what happened in Vietnam. "I don't want to go any further into this," he replies. It would require too many corrections and qualifications. It would arouse more controversy. But isn't controversy the only road to a closer approximation of the truth? Does it feel as if McNamara would be damned if he answered the question and damned if he didn't, Morris asks. Yes, his subject says, and he'd "rather be damned if I don't."

The film merely notes that McNamara served as president of the World Bank from 1968 to 1981, and has been involved in programs for the poor and world improvement ever since. It does not address that period at all, though McNamara has received his share of attacks for his tenure at the World Bank as well. John Ralston Saul, the Canadian novelist and businessman, chose McNamara as his evil poster child in the 1992 book Voltaire's Bastards: the Dictatorship of Reason in the West, an indictment of the relentless rationalism of Western governments and corporations since the Enlightenment. "He is the most perfect example," Saul wrote, "of a technocrat holding great power while crippled by a personality cleanly divided between mechanical brilliance at one extreme and childlike idealism at the other, with absolutely no thread of common sense to link the two together." One would love to hear Saul's reaction to McNamara's book, and his performance in this movie.

While film critics have generally praised "The Fog of War," leftist pundits have excoriated Morris for letting McNamara "get away with it": he controlled the interview, "manipulated" Morris, and threw up a brick wall when the questions started to get hard. Morris should have pressed his interviewee harder, these advocates feel. But I don't believe the filmmaker was necessarily interested in "the truth," let alone a sealed indictment. He was interested in McNamara's character, and did a reasonable job of letting his subject contradict and even hang himself with his own blind spots and supposed honesty, noting occasional ironies along the way.

When the trailers for "The Fog of War" started screening in late 2003, I imagine many of us fuzzy-headed liberals said to ourselves, "Wow, what great timing! Morris is perfectly poised to offer an indirect but powerful commentary on this stupid Bush administration adventure in Iraq!" Indeed he was. But the movie turns out to be neither triumphant nor cathartic; it didn't leave me feeling thrilled or especially enlightened. It raises more questions than it resolves. If I had to characterize my reaction to the film, I walked away feeling quietly if firmly stunned, or at best mightily puzzled. I was metaphorically scratching my head as I left the theater and for days after, any time I cared to think about it.

But that's not a bad thing. In fact, it would be a sterling achievement in a book, never mind a film. The operative phrase, however, is "cared to think," and I fear that may be too great a task for the average American moviegoer. Although it has stirred spirited debate in the liberal media (and I mean that phrase to characterize a small segment of the press; in general, the media in this country are not liberal), and on the Internet (see, for example, and the discussion board for the film on, this subtly disturbing documentary will most probably wind up preaching mostly to the choir, and not widening the public debate about the lessons of Vietnam, let alone Iraq.

For that, I am sorry.

David Loftus, March 6, 2004


In 1965, Loftus's father was so enraged by the escalation of the war in Vietnam (a year after campaigning for Johnson over Goldwater because he was "the peace candidate"), that he decreed there would be no observance of Christmas in the family household. The "peace on earth, goodwill to men" bit simply grated too much on Don Loftus. His wife Mitzi, realizing that little David might not appreciate the political and spiritual subtleties of the situation at the age of 6, negotiated a compromise: David could have a little tree up in his bedroom (which a kindly friend sold him for 25 cents). Seven years later, now an eighth grader, David wore a "McGovern/Shriver" button to school every day and got in arguments with classmates who said the U.S. should simply drop an atomic bomb on Hanoi. He hasn't found any reason to adjust his attitude toward the U.S. government
and its foreign adventures. David Loftus, Writer -


Errol Morris - Writer and Director
Julia Bilson Ahlberg, Michael Williams, Errol Morris - Producers
Robert Chappell, Peter Donahue - Cinematographers
Doug Abel, Chyld King, Karen Schmeer - Editors

2003, 95 minutes


2003 Best Documentary, National Board of Review (USA)
2003 Best Documentary (2nd Place), Boston Society of Film Critics
2004 Best Documentary, Chicago Film Critics Association
2004 Best Non-Fiction Film, Los Angeles Film Critics Association
2004 Best Documentary, Independent Spirit Awards
2004 Oscar, Best Feature Documentary, Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences

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