Wednesday, December 29, 2004

film: The Fog of War

The Fog of War 5/5

In a year when documentaries made the type of headlines normally reserved for blockbuster movies, The Fog of War stands as one of the best.

The film is essentially about former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara and his look back at the World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War. His stint as the President of the Ford Motor Company is also highlighted since he went from there directly to the Cabinet of John F. Kennedy as Defense Secretary, after rejecting the position of Secretary of Commerce. In the film, he recounted how he met Kennedy in person but was reluctant to become Defense Secretary since he had nor training it. Kennedy replied that there also was no school for aspiring Presidents to attend, either.

Each chapter in the film is preceded by a “rule” that McNamara expands upon, with eleven in total.

McNamara gets a lot off of his chest, and says a few things that you wouldn’t expect to hear from someone whose career has been built around war and the efficient ways of killing people. At one moment, he asks the question about what makes it moral if you win but immoral if you lose.

Other interesting parts of the film include the story about McNamara meeting a Vietnamese General and clearing seeing that either side did not understand each other. The Vietnamese thought they were fighting the US to stave off becoming a US colony while what they really wanted to do was fight for their independence. Meanwhile, the US saw the war in the context of the Vietnamese becoming a Soviet asset.

McNamara also talks chillingly about how nuclear war was averted in the Cuban Missile Crisis by Kennedy listening to an advisor who told him to get into the mind of Khrushchev to see things from his perspective. Khrushchev was seen as a hero who prevented Kennedy from invading Cuba, which is what Kennedy hoped would happen. The ability to save face essentially saved the world.

It would be fascinating for Donald Rumsfeld, or any seasoned war expert, to watch this documentary then engage in a lively, open discussion about war, and the mistakes that happen. Now in his 80s and long retired from duty as the President of the World Bank, McNamara appears looks back with a sense of wisdom and history that most people caught in the middle of the military industrial complex, can’t relate to, because they are too closely tied to the action.

Reviewer James Berardinelli summed things up nicely, “If one seeks to find an overarching theme, it's that, even when dealing with intelligent, rational men, the baser parts of our nature often come to the fore. And also that we too often don't learn from our mistakes.”

It comes as no surprise that this film was an Oscar at the 2004 Academy Awards for Best Documentry. Director Errol Morris is also well known for The Thin Blue Line (1988) and A Brief History of Time (1991.) The release of the former resulted in the exoneration of man who was on death row.

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