Film-Forward Review: [THE FOG OF WAR]

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Robert McNamara (Photo: Sony Pictures Entertainment)

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Directed by: Errol Morris.
Produced by: Julie Bilson Ahlberg, Errol Morris & Michael Williams.
Director of Photography: Robert Chappell & Peter Donahue.
Edited by: Doug Abel, Chyld King & Karen Schmeer.
Music by: Philip Glass.
Released by: Sony Picture Classics.
Country of Origin: USA. 95 min. Rated: PG-13.
With: Robert McNamara.
Special Features: 24 additional scenes. "Robert S. McNamara's 10 Lessons From His Life in Politics". TV spots. Trailers. French/Portuguese/Spanish/Japanese subtitles. (Some extras subtitled in Japanese.)

Former ambassador Llewellyn (Tommy) Thompson, having lived with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, knew what would deflate the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as save face for the Soviet leader. Robert McNamara, the former secretary of defense for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, offers this fascinating example to illustrate his first lesson, “Empathize with your enemy.” Throughout, he offers many personal anecdotes from his wide-ranging career covering his service in World War II, his tenure as president of Ford Motor Company and Cold War warrior. Rather than offering a mea culpa in this one-sided conversation, McNamara matter-of-factly defends his career, underscored by archival footage. There’s enough material here for many films. Born in 1916, he even remembers the celebrations marking the end of World War I. In the Second World War, he was part of the plan to firebomb Japan. Grappling with the rules of war, he makes a frank and startling admission. And never having served in government, he is reluctant to do so when asked by John F. Kennedy. The president-elect persists - “Look Bob, I don’t think there’s a school for the presidency.” Perhaps the most moving testimony regards his assisting Jacqueline Kennedy following JFK’s assassination. Needless to say, his accounts are thought provoking and timely, especially lesson nine, “In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.” However, the hypnotic and repetitive score by Philip Glass often upstages the film. The content is potent on its own. KT
January 7, 2004

DVD Extras: McNamara proclaims his 10 lessons as his own, as opposed to the lessons Morris extrapolated from their conversations. They are pretty similar, though, to the ones found in the documentary. An especially chilling pearl of wisdom imparted by McNamara, almost as if in response to current events, is his lesson number three, part of which reads: "If we cannot persuade other nations with similar interests and similar values of the merits of our proposed use of that power, we should not proceed unilaterally except in the unlikely requirement to defend directly the continental U.S., Alaska, and Hawaii." (He has refused to directly comment on current events, stating he is not in possession of all the facts and therefore does not wish to second-guess the U.S. governmental leadership.)

One element that is sorely lacking - some form of commentary track, whether it be Morris elaborating on his technique or a response by McNamara to the finished film. Rather, there are two dozen additional scenes, some of which provide more context, and others which are, admittedly, redundant. Two scenes are as haunting and vital as anything in The Fog of War: the lessons McNamara learned from WWII regarding the importance of understanding the geopolitical sequence of events as a prerequisite of combat, and when he mentions Kennedy's prophetic suggestion to his administration they read The Guns of August to learn from the military mistakes made in the events recounted. Another highlight is the notorious Johnson campaign ad from 1964, meant to scare the electorate into voting for the incumbent. A case could be made that another scene, of McNamara detailing his overhaul of the Ford Company's accounting practices, should have stayed in the film, since it demonstrates the trademark assembly-line efficiency that was probably the reason Kennedy asked McNamara to take the defense secretary position in the first place, and which would eventually be used toward considerably more lethal ends. McNamara gets very emotional, however, talking about his deceased wife Marg's humanitarian work, and (perhaps a bit self-servingly) his own accomplishments as head of the World Bank. Finally, he makes a comparison between his situation and that of the Biblical story of Job that is unintentionally comical, since one suspects that - at least in his analogy - McNamara means to compare himself to God. Reymond Levy
June 2, 2004



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