Looking Back at the ’60s, 1: “The Fog of War”

Paleo Retiree writes:


Bugged and annoyed by Errol Morris’s recent movie about Donald Rumsfeld (which Fabrizio dealt with thoroughly here), I just caught up with “The Fog of War,” Morris’ 2003 visit with Robert S. McNamara, the former Ford Motors “whiz kid” who, as Secretary of Defense, implemented a lot of JFK and LBJ’s Vietnam War policies. Morris’ fans find the film much more satisfying than “The Unknown Known.” Would I too?

The two movies are certainly different viewing experiences in some respects. Where Rumsfeld showed up before Morris’ camera in a proud and assertive mood — to make his case, to defend his acts and to shore up his reputation — McNamara was, very late in life (he died in 2009 at 93), eager to admit to misgivings and grief. The Vietnam War was a tragic mistake, he now feels. In fact, McNamara argued at the time with Kennedy and Johnson about the wisdom of pursuing the war; Morris turns up audio evidence of this. McNamara sheds some tears of remorse, and (unlike the feisty Rumsfeld) often speaks with a great deal of emotional stress in his voice. We need to know that life is difficult, leaders are people too, the human costs of political blunders can be tragic … According to Morris fans, the film is thereby richer, more emotional, more revelatory.

I was torn. I found it very interesting to be reminded of the history and to meet the person. The movie covers McNamara’s middle-class California childhood, his time in the U.S. Army Air Force in WWII and his career at Ford as well as the Vietnam debacle (it leaves out his years at the World Bank). He was a brilliant student (Berkeley and Harvard Business School) who really wanted to be a professor, but the era and his virtuosity with statistics sidetracked him into industry instead, and his successes at Ford attracted the attention of JFK.

The picture isn’t a definitive account of events and it doesn’t try to be — that’s for other books and movies. Morris is more interested in exploring McNamara’s point of view than in challenging him. So the movie at its most basic level is an enlightening visit to another era, a time when the country’s economy, influence and power were growing by leaps and bounds, and when engineering-and-MBA-style expertise and rationality were thought to confer superhuman powers.

It’s interesting too to experience the Vietnam War years through McNamara’s mind and eye. McNamara implemented policies and stood up publicly for his bosses while privately feeling and expressing many misgivings. What’s it like to be a hyper-competent, smart guy who helped cause needless death and destruction? Not many of us will ever have that experience. We learn that Johnson in particular felt trapped by the war. LBJ felt he needed to see the war through despite the fact that nobody could figure out what exactly was at stake or what benefits winning the war might confer on us. It’s also interesting and useful to be reminded that even the alphas who we like to believe are steering the Ship of History don’t know at the time they’re making their decisions what’s really going on, let alone where they’re taking the rest of us. We all make it up as we go along, I guess; life is matter of blundering through, and then it’s over. Plus: however horrifying you find the policies of people like Rumsfeld or McNamara, it’s hard to deny that these guys are sharp, capable, thoughtful and (maybe most disturbingly) human.

All the above is OK with me, and it that’s all the movie were I’d give it an enthusiastic thumbs up. But, as with the Rumsfeld movie, Morris’ filmmaking drove me nuts with annoyance. It’s domineering, as well as banal-yet-showoffy. Morris has a rep for being brilliant and innovative, for making sui generis movies, and for having a major gift for turning ideas and intellectual impressions into profound visuals. Yet I nearly always find his filmmaking heavyhanded and literal. The visuals in “The Fog of War” are often shockingly banal. When McNamara talks about the infamous domino theory, Morris shows us — brace yourself — shots of a line of dominos falling down on top of a map of Southeast Asia; when McNamara talks about looking at history counterfactually, Morris runs the dominos-falling-over footage in reverse. These domino images (and there are a lot of them) are artfully lit and composed but they’re about as subtle as a yellow highlighter. I watch Morris’ films wishing he’d stop thinking of himself as a philosopher, more concerned with issues and abstractions than with facts and stories, and really wishing that he’d ease up on the “I’m not a documentarian, I’m a filmmaker” baloney. It’s all unnecessarily busy and intrusive. He never stops reminding you that you’re in the hands of Errol Morris.

All that said, I admit, if very grudgingly, that Morris has got a good instinct for subject matter and that he can be a valuable interviewer. The movie’s worth watching, but if you’re like me it may also make you want to tear your hair out.


About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog 2Blowhards.com. Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
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13 Responses to Looking Back at the ’60s, 1: “The Fog of War”

  1. plwinkler says:

    I didn’t really get much out of The Fog of War. McNamara is a more sympathetic or perhaps more likeable person than Rumsfeld, or so it seems from watching the two films, but other than some hand wringing from McNamara and a rehash of the history of US involvement in Vietnam, there’s nothing really new here.


  2. slumlord says:

    I really liked this movie and I personally thought Morris did a good job. His portrayal of McNamara was humane, even though it was inaccurate. Morris does leave you with the conclusion that McNamara was a smart guy doing the best that he could in a terrible situation. I got the impression Morris went easy on McNamara because he was didn’t want to tarnish the image of Camelot. The Kennedy worship was pretty strong in this film.

    Historically, that is not the case. McNamara continued to ignore good advice, prosecuted and demoted generals who didn’t agree with him and blamed everyone but himself for his failings. Objective historical analysis of the time shows that McNamara was a prime mover in the debacle of Vietnam and much of the failure of U.S. effort lays squarely on his shoulders. I thought Morrris let him off far too easily. To Morris’s credit he allowed the specter of Curtis Le May, McNamara’s ruthless yet competent alternative to lurk throughout the film as a counterpoint to him.

    If I ever have the time, or the money, I’d love to do a movie, in the same style of Morris, where Curtis Le May gets to reply to McNamara. Le May is one of the most unjustly maligned figures in U.S. history and Morris clearly didn’t do his homework when it came to him, simply repeating the mainstream mantra that Le May was ruthless killer drunk on bloodlust. Yet so many Americans and Japanese owe their lives to him. Most people aren’t aware that while he was on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Le May argued against intervention in Vietnam.

    Le May summed it up best in explaining why the U.S won the war against Japan and lost it in Vietnam. “In Japan, I was doing the targeting, in Vietnam, McNamara was.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d love to watch your movie about Curtis LeMay.


      • LeMay certainly was an interesting figure. George Wallace deserves credit for selecting him to be his runningmate, LOL. In September of 1945, LeMay became the first pilot to ever fly nonstop from Chicago to Japan (at a time when he was already a Major General, no less). I can’t imagine any of the guys (and gals?) we have holding high rank in the Armed Forces today, engaged in such a daring activity. They’d be too busy meeting with public relations specialists, and jiggling the paperwork in order to meet diversity quotas er, “goals.” LeMay is an example of the sort of man that made America great. Its no accident that today, he seems almost…foreign.


    • Toddy Cat says:

      Yes, Le May was a very complex individual, and a lot less bloodthirsty than McNamara and his cold, bloodless “whiz Kids” with their Univacs and body counts and greenbar printouts. He never forgot that there were actual human beings under the bombs, as well as on the planes. He actually dropped leaflets on some Japanese cities before he bombed them, urging civilians to evacuate. Like Paleo, I’d pay good money to see a decent film about him.


  3. agnostic says:

    “I got the impression Morris went easy on McNamara because he was didn’t want to tarnish the image of Camelot. The Kennedy worship was pretty strong in this film.”

    It was made by an early Boomer. The assassination hit the same time puberty did for them, and the two variations on the theme of loss of innocence amplified each other so much that the shockwaves overloaded their brain.

    By the time the Camelot mythology had hardened into place, when the Boomers were going through nostalgia during the ’80s and early ’90s, the much older generations were too long out of influence to correct them on a national level.

    Generation X aren’t true believers in the myth, but they don’t know any better from personal experience either. It’s just something most of them have no strong feelings about or connection to. Nor do they share the same attitude toward presidential assassinations that struck during puberty — granted, Reagan survived, but even if he had not, early X-ers would not have woven a Morning in America myth to bandage their adolescent psychic wounds.

    So if anyone’s going to provide the correction, it’ll be them. (Millennials are mostly uninterested in history.)

    I know it’d be outside his forte of crime and thriller movies, but Christopher Nolan would do well at humanizing the period, warts and all. Matthew Weiner & co. already took a stab at humbling the grand Camelot narrative in an episode of Mad Men, but it requires further treatment than a background event in a single TV episode.


    • I wish we could get more people to recognize your good distinction between “early Boomers” and later Boomers. As a later Boomer myself, I’ve always found it annoying to be lumped in with the older Boomers. We don’t have that much in common. My cohort (we emerged into the world in the late ’70s) was quite irreverent about our older siblings, but we never get credit for that. We also didn’t receive anything like the fun economic and social benefits our older siblings did — rioting on campus, tumbling into fun jobs in a fizzy economy, etc. The protests were over by the time we got to college, and the economy we started out in was the worst one between WWII and now. Yet we — and Boomers even younger than we are — are always getting lumped in with the early Boomers as Boomers generally. The injustice of it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • plwinkler says:

        “The protests were over by the time we got to college, and the economy we started out in was the worst one between WWII and now.”

        You were a Bummer Boomer, then.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ace9 says:

        That’s a great point. The end of the Boomer era was 1953 or 4. Especially since the 1954 cohort would be the first Boomers not to have to deal with the draft, which ended in 1973. My father was born in 51, and went to college to avoid the draft. He was not a good student, and I wonder what would have happened had he just risked it (in retrospect, his numbers never came up) and gotten a job and married my mom right after high school. He would have been better off, I think. And to a Generation Xer like me, growing up in the loosey goosey 70s seemed like paradise. Maybe i’ve watched too many movies.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Toddy Cat says:

    Of course, I despise McNamara, and I dislike Morris almost as much, so I’m not exactly unbiased…


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