FOG OF WAR, THE

PG-13

-By Doris Toumarkine


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The Fog of War is about much more than Robert S. McNamara, even though he is the focus and is constantly on camera throughout. Indeed, Errol Morris' remarkable and uncannily timely documentary is about war and bogus strategies, or, more precisely, the "fog" of ignorance that surrounds war and blinds even the powers that be from actually knowing and understanding what the heck is really going on or why the damn thing ever got started. In other words, the more things change, etc., as the saying goes and as the current mess in Iraq reminds.

Many of us from the '60s don't associate McNamara, sometimes dubbed the "architect" of the Vietnam War, with being humble or anti-war or pro-peace, for that matter. But in this festival favorite, including slots at Cannes, New York and the Hamptons, he comes off convincingly and sincerely as all three. Still clear-headed, charismatic and monumentally self-assured at 85, he is a shrewd, objective, no-nonsense analyst who can own up to his own and his country's mistakes.

A veteran of World War II who went on briefly to head Ford Motors and then to serve for seven years in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, McNamara speaks with deep regret about the 1945 U.S. firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities that resulted in the death of around 100,000 civilians in one night. The tragedy was so egregious that the 'brutal, belligerent' General Curtis LeMay even admitted to him that had the Americans lost the war, those behind the raid might have been vulnerable to war-criminal charges. McNamara concurs but wonders which would have been the greater evil: bombing the Japanese, or proceeding with a land invasion that would have resulted in a similar number or more of U.S. casualties.

With his breadth of experience and access, McNamara has learned some lessons and shares them. One that is painfully relevant for today is his caveat that the U.S. should never go unilaterally into a war, that real allies are crucial. Emitting no knee-jerk defenses and revealing himself as a deep-thinker, he makes no excuses for the earlier mess that was this country's Vietnam involvement. But he does make a convincing case for the fact that once again that fog of ignorance rolled in to cloud decisions and distort some of the key issues that led to this country's entry into battle in Vietnam.

Most compelling is the segment explaining how America so egregiously misinterpreted the actions of North Vietnam. According to McNamara, a former North Vietnamese told him that the U.S., in a Cold War fog, completely misunderstood the motives of the north. Rather than it being a potential seedbed for the spread of much-dreaded Communism, that country, long occupied by the French, was actually fighting a war for the independence that had eluded it for so long. Like President Kennedy, McNamara favored withdrawal from Vietnam and said that 'we were wrong' to go in and bomb the North.

In addition to bountiful footage of the telegenic McNamara, Morris delivers a bright and provocative mix of archival footage, stills and graphics to supplement the ex-Secretary's commentary. Among the archival material are rarely or never-before-heard audiotapes recorded at the White House. Several suggest that Kennedy, had he lived, would not have let the Vietnam crisis grow to the point of all-out war and that LBJ, while deeply conflicted, only reluctantly allowed it to happen by sending in the Marines in 1965. Other revelations have to do with the debacle of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and McNamara's disturbing claim that the country came close to nuclear war on three different occasions during his seven years in the Cabinet.

Known for turning quirky subject matter into compelling documentaries (Gates of Heaven, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., A Brief History of Time, etc.), Morris lets his dead-serious side shine with The Fog of War, as he did with The Thin Blue Line. Surprisingly for an archival-rich documentary featuring an interview with an elderly businessman and statesman expounding on solemn subjects, the music score by Philip Glass is a perfect fit.

The forecast for The Fog of War is definitely upbeat, although its considerations of human nature are most certainly downbeat. For this Fog emits a dismal beacon, obliquely suggesting that war just might be inevitable. But armies of upscale audiences will line up to serve here and, with or without that video ammo needed for votes, Sony Pictures Classics will also enlist the support of plenty of Academy members.

-Doris Toumarkine


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