Neil Young’s Film Lounge – The Fog of War



The Fog of War Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S McNamara
USA 2003 : Errol MORRIS : 105 mins

War is not an exact science, and most acts of war are based on decisions made in the fog, that is without an overview of the actual conditions. When the war is over and the fog lifts, everything looks very different. It is like this also for decision makers, if only they are able to admit it. Robert McNamara, former US Secretary of Defense, now 86 years old, has a lot to tell: about decisions, about power, about more than just one war. In conversation with filmmaker Errol Morris, McNamara pours out his experiences, his knowledge, his reflection and, in the end, his helplessness.
(from official Troms 2004 Film Festival programme)

The films Eleven Lessons subtitle is correct: this documentary is pretty much an illustrated, talking-head lecture, broken up into non-chronological sections, delivered by the aged but feisty McNamara Defense Secretary to Democrat presidents Kennedy and Johnson. But the lessons structure itself doesn’t really work this feels like an arbitrary way of dividing up McNamaras recollections, and in most instances by the time a chapter has concluded the viewer has forgotten the lesson we were supposed to learn.

The illustrations, meanwhile, take the form of film, video and audio clips of McNamara himself, mixed with stock-footage of the key historical events (World War II and the Tokyo firestorm; Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis; Vietnam) in which he participated. As selected by Morris, these illustrations are often fascinating, occasionally even inspired. At other times, however, they are standard-issue stuff familiar from any documentary on 20th century American history. The flashback material is heralded by cutting to a black screen on which a year is superimposed (1945, 1968, etc) for a few seconds this gives the film a gratuitous stateliness that gradually gets on ones nerves. And Philip Glasss urgent score, though serving to give the film a much-needed unity, isn’t immune from lapsing into clich

Morriss decision to concentrate so squarely on McNamara, meanwhile, does pay dividends the subject is able to address the camera directly, thanks to Morriss Interrotron invention. But there’s an unfortunate side-effect of this device – the directors questions come across in an oddly disembodied and high-pitched voice its as if McNamara is being quizzed by an unseen Michael Jackson impersonator. There are many fascinating stories here, however, and McNamara relates them with convincing honesty and objectivity, a clear-eyed kind of hindsight that doesn’t shirk from uncomfortable conclusions or admissions of guilt. While absorbing and watchable as a feature documentary (even if not in the same league as its Oscar rival Capturing the Friedmans) The Fog of War will of course prove invaluable as a historical testament.

The real stars of the show, however, are editors Karen Schmeer, Doug Abel and Chyld King, who assemble McNamaras comments into a seamless audio track. The visuals make no attempt to hide the editing process, Morris preferring to leave in all the cuts rather than deploy the normal documentary technique of covering them up: this results in a jumpy, jerky look which should in theory be off-putting, but actually turns out to suit the crusty, no-bullshit McNamara rather well.

3rd February, 2004
(seen 15th January : Kulturhuset, Troms Troms International Film Festival)

click here for a full list of reviewed films from the Troms International Film Festival 2004

by Neil Young