When Errol Morris decided to make The Fog of War, his new documentary about Robert S. McNamara, he knew that his subject had been interviewed before. When we spoke, in fact, Morris estimated that during the course of McNamara's high-profile career - President of the Ford Motor Co.; Secretary of Defence for both Kennedy and Johnson; President of the World Bank - he had been interviewed by "tens of thousands of journalists over the years."An extremely visible and powerful figure in American politics and history, McNamara has been questioned and held responsible for everything from US military action and policy in Japan during WWII to the Vietnam War; from the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs to Americas use of biochemical weapon Agent Orange; and, paradoxically, he has been credited with innovations as important as the first automobile seatbelt.
Now 86, McNamara has written and co-authored several books recalling his political and personal experiences, including his controversial "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of the Vietnam War."
Yet until Errol Morris made The Fog of War, it seems that Robert S. McNamara has been misunderstood.
According to Morris, the misunderstanding stems from the publics desire to believe that McNamara was The Best and the Brightest, Number-Cruncher, Statistician, Guy Who Couldn't Relate To People, Devoid of Human Values, Ethical Sensibility, tra la la la la. A simplified view of McNamara was easiest to swallow; critics and readers alike asserted that In Retrospect was nothing short of a 'mea culpa'. It was written about endlessly as a mea culpa. But this book is far crazier than that To me, a mea culpa has [three] basic ingredients You say, I did something wrong, It was my fault, and Im sorry. But McNamara does not say, Im sorry. He does not say, I did something wrong. He says that the war was wrong. [And] thats one of the things that disturbs and infuriates people.
Unlike the majority of critics, Morris saw In Retrospect as neither an evasion nor a bid for redemption. To him the book was actually about someone really tortured by his own past. Its about trying to understand, What the hell happened? or if you like, What the hell happened to me? As if by going through a detailed recitation of what happened, somehow he could figure it out. He started with what Renoir called The Grand Illusion. That there ever could be an end to war, and that human behavior in some sense is tractable and can ever be ameliorated. The disturbing thing is that this was a man with real ethical dimension who did something terrible. Something that never will be redeemed.
Morris collected approximately 20 hours of interview footage with McNamara, which he then distilled into a two-hour feature. A filmmaker celebrated for achieving surprisingly impartial results through his original, often unorthodox editing logic, Morris structures The Fog of War as a series of Eleven Lessons that McNamara has learned and is passing on to viewers. And although the lack of a more predictable framework (i.e., chronological) may be challenging to viewers unfamiliar with these historical events, Morris' editing keeps pace with McNamara's version of the past. "In order to answer that, I have to go back to the end of the war," McNamara might explain, and the inter-titles obligingly ferry us back to 1945.
The films Lessons range from the smart-alecky Never Answer The Question That Is Asked Of You, Answer The Question You Wished Was Asked Of You, to the near religious Rationality Will Not Save Us; the Lessons culminate in the profound epiphany that You Cant Change Human Nature. Morris describes #11 as the Lesson that tells you that all the other lessons don't matter; its ironic, absurdist and he revels in its circularity.
Yet the tongue-in-cheek organization is strikingly appropriate to the revisionist nature of history and its relative truths. "Ive never really believed in that style of interviewing where you're supposed to coax some kind of answer particularly the answer that someone doesn't want to give," Morris asserts. And although he knew that McNamara was often recounting highly rope to hang himself or whether he has finally explained, justified and exonerated himself is a question for viewers to decide.