Saturday, November 5, 2011

Perhaps There's More Impact For Those Who Lived Through Vietnam . . . The Fog Of War

The Good: Very informative, Moments of insight, Reinforces education
The Bad: Nothing terribly new, Direction, Not terribly well-rounded
The Basics: In a good, but not great, documentary, former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara sits and talks about his life while director Errol Morris tries to interpret his story.

It's only been in the last few years that I've gotten into documentaries. Once upon a time, they bored me. Now, I thrill for a real well-made documentary. There are documentaries that make excellent arguments and use a variety of well-chosen clips to make their points, like Fahrenheit 9/11 (reviewed here!) and there are documentaries that do an excellent job of capturing their subject, like An Inconvenient Truth (reviewed here!). In fact, the only documentary that has flat-out disappointed me in recent memory was Shut Up And Sing. When a friend of mine recommended The Fog Of War, I was instantly intrigued; most of the documentaries I've watched of late have been about current events, so the opportunity to learn more history was something of a thrill to me. The Fog Of War: Eleven Life Lessons From The Life Of Robert S. McNamara is a documentary that explores the influence of McNamara as the Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson; the rise of the Vietnam War.

In what basically amounts to a candid discussion, Robert S. McNamara tells his story. Going back to his early experiences in World War II, McNamara describes life as a soldier, a civilian, and then working as Secretary of Defense. He reveals the inner workings of the Kennedy Situation Room during the Cuban Missile Crisis, admits the Gulf of Tonkin Incident was overreacted to, and attempts to put the Vietnam War in the context of the war on communism (which he calls a very hot war). As the film goes on, it loses some direction as McNamara simply relays common information about working with Johnson and ultimately his leaving the Federal government.

The main problem, just to be absolutely direct about it, with The Fog Of War is that it meanders a bit much. While it is subtitled "Eleven Lessons From The Life Of Robert S. McNamara," and while it nicely dictates those eleven lessons as they come up in the movie, the film meanders far too much to be considered well-assembled. McNamara tells a more or less straightforward narrative in (for the most part) chronological order. Sure, he starts during Vietnam, but he almost instantly digresses into a personal history and then takes things back through in pretty much chronological order. The lessons, then, take on more of a stylistic flavor than an actual, useful device. The film is not organized especially around the lessons, they are simply highlighted when McNamara mentions them as a way to keep the audience focused on what director Errol Morris wants the viewer to be getting out of the movie.

This becomes a bit of a distraction as it focuses what is essentially a candid history lesson on what Morris wants the movie to mean, as opposed to what the viewer finds interesting. Morris forces an order on a conversation that he is barely controlling and the viewer is left feeling like his efforts would have been better spent guiding the conversation more, as opposed to intercutting the film with Morris's "Cliff Notes" on the conversation.

The other serious problem with The Fog Of War is more directly related to the direction of the film. At various points in McNamara's conversation, director Errol Morris cuts in visual images of fact sheets, newspaper clippings and even footage from television during the Vietnam War. The problem is that the sheets of data flip up on the screen with a speed that it's hard to catch what the point is. The viewer is able to read one or two words, then the image flashes to another printed document and the net effect is more confusing than constructive. A good contrast to this comes in Fahrenheit 9/11; Michael Moore supports several of his arguments with images of documents. Moore lets the camera linger on them, he highlights the phrases he wants the viewer to see, even has side by side comparisons between doctored and unaltered documents. In short, Moore uses the visual medium wonderfully to support his ideas and/or say something using documentation. Morris simply uses alternate media clips as a special effect and it cheapens the movie, especially the impact of some of the more important statements made in The Fog Of War.

That said, there are some impressive moments in the interview with Robert S. McNamara that are genuinely shocking. At one point, in talking about the fire-bombing of Tokyo in World War II, McNamara essentially admits that he is a war criminal. He acknowledges the killing of innocent civilians and basically states that if the U.S. had lost WWII, he and others like him would likely have been brought before a war crimes tribunal. That's audacious and it's surprising that he admitted it so readily.

Moreover, one of McNamara's lessons (or Morris's lessons from the life of McNamara) is "In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil." In this context, McNamara admits that virtually every honest military strategist will admit that they've made a mistake at one point or another. This is refreshing to hear, especially now as the U.S. is embroiled in a war where the organizers of the war virtually never admit their failures. McNamara talks with a frankness about his experiences in war, then coming to the Department of Defense after working at Ford Motor Company and his honesty and perspective are refreshing.

But it's a bit of a misnomer to believe that this somewhat rambling documentary is more than McNamara on McNamara. This is a 107 minute conversation where Robert S. McNamara talks about himself and his experiences. On the DVD, there are extensive clips - removed from the original release - that are essentially more of McNamara talking about himself. Is he interesting? Sure, the way a good professor is. Is he informative? I learned some, but mostly reinforced what I learned back in high school.

This is not a documentary really designed to change people's minds and it does a decent job at informing, but little is presented that is new. Instead, it's a good reinforcement tool. I recommend it for those who want to learn specifically about McNamara more than learning about the Vietnam War, tactics or anything else. This is mostly McNamara - his story, his views, his perspectives. Morris does a good job with keeping him talking, but much of the burden is on McNamara to say something.

He does, it's just not much. It's certainly not much to look at.

For other documentaries, please check out my reviews of:
Who Killed The Electric Car?
Shut Up And Sing
Wal-Mart: The High Cost Of Low Price


For other movie reviews, check out my index page!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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