Urban Cinefile  
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Wednesday March 25, 2020 


Former US Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara discusses the political and moral issues surrounding the act of war. Backtracking from his service as an Air Force officer in WW2, McNamara candidly relates details of the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945 and events leading to America's involvement in Vietnam. Often cited as the architect of the Vietnam War, McNamara speaks openly about the crucial role played by the assassination of JFK in steering America into combat. Archival footage and rarely-heard White House tape recordings are used to complement McNamara's frank observations on the psychology of conflict.

Review by Richard Kuipers:
Errol Morris' reputation as one of the greatest living documentary-makers is enhanced by the release of this essay on the psychology and morality of warfare. Audiences who are predisposed to dislike Robert S. McNamara for the role he played in the Vietnam war will be surprised by the openness with which McNamara talks about events in which he played a leading role. While falling short of falling on his sword, McNamara is sensitive to and deeply affected by the tragedy of war and conveys this in a series of emotionally charged and intellectually rigorous discussions around the topic.

Originally granted only an hour to interview 85 year-old McNamara for what was then a different project, Morris was eventually granted 20 hours of McNamara's time and he's edited the material into 105 minutes of compelling personal and political history. This remarkably alert octogenarian begins with details of the fire-bombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities in 1945. On the orders of Gen. Curtis LeMay - McNamara's commanding officer at the time and his adversary in the 60s - 100,000 civilian lives were lost in a single night in order to spare American casualties in a conventional land invasion.

Was this justifiable and might LeMay and his fellow commanders have faced war crime charges had the Allies lost? The answers are unknowable but here they become riveting points of discussion and analysis for the fiercely alert and intelligent McNamara. In later segments he reveals fresh angles on just how close America and the USSR came to nuclear conflict during the Cuban Missile Crisis and delivers a perfectly simple yet brilliant explanation for why America could not win the Vietnam war. Unlike the Soviet leadership, whosepsychological make-up and political ambitions were well understood by their US counterparts, Ho Chi Minh and his cadres were completely misjudged.

What the US could not achieve in this case was viewing the conflict through enemy eyes. The Vietcong struggle was about freedom from a long line of colonial powers, with America simply replacing the French. The US, according to McNamara, held no such colonial aspirations and viewed Vietnam as a "liberate and leave" zone. Parallels with the present situation in Iraq suggest that America has failed to learn from what McNamara preaches here - that the US should not launch itself into trouble spots without the full support of its allies. Australians should note that when McNamara talks about American allies at the time of Vietnam, Australia does not even rate a mention.

Think about it. Even without archival footage McNamara could hold the screen for the duration, such is the dynamism of his thoughts and the vigour of his conversation. The footage that Morris does cut away to is nothing short of astounding and includes incredible colour film of Vietnam, amazing corporate films made during McNamara's time at the Ford Motor Company (it was his idea to introduce seatbelts) and taped conversations between himself and LBJ. The most telling of these is LBJ committing to sending troops to Vietnam with the words "my answer is yes, but my judgement is no".

Destined to become one of the most important filmed records of how and why we go to war, The Fog Of War is far from a revisionist tract offering self-rehabilitation for a man involved in the most traumatic of 20th century conflicts. When he chooses not to answer a specific question, his eyes and voice give us the answers that nightmares and guilt conspire to steer him away. Even with the odd evasion, McNamara reveals plenty here and it's unlikely his commentary will be endorsed by the US State or Defense departments. Above all, the power of this film to provoke discussion makes it essential viewing.

Email this article

Favourable: 1
Unfavourable: 0
Mixed: 0




CAST: Robert McNamara

PRODUCER: Julie Bilson Ahlberg, Errol Morris, Michael Williams

DIRECTOR: Errol Morris

SCRIPT: Errol Morris

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Robert Chappell, Peter Donahue

EDITOR: Doug Abel, Chyld King, Karen Schmeer

MUSIC: Philip Glass

PRODUCTION DESIGN: Ted Bafaloukos, Steve Hardie

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes


AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: Sydney/ Melbourne/ACT: March 18, 2004

VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Columbia TriStar Entertainment

VIDEO RELEASE: July 21, 2004

Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2020