Monday, February 28, 2005


Over the weekend, we watched The Fog of War, which won Errol Morris the 2004 Oscar for Best Documentary (Feature). Morris is a great film-maker, although he is difficult to categorize. He has a knack for finding eccentric characters and weaving their stories together into film, as displayed in Vernon, Florida, about the odd inhabitants of the title town, and Gates of Heaven, a look at the world of pet cemetaries. Morris has also tackled more serious fare, such as The Thin Blue Line, which resulted in the exoneration of a man convicted of a murder which he did not commit.

Subtitled Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara, The Fog of War takes a candid look at the man who shaped American military policy for decades. The film is structured around these eleven "lessons," with narrative from an extended interview with the former Secretary of Defense (with occasional off-camera questions from Morris), and interspersed with film of military actions, recorded conversations between high-ranking government officials (including Presidents Kennedy and Johnson), press conferences and other archival footage. One of Morris' great strengths is his ability to edit the various historical clips and recordings to assemble a cohesive and captivating story. One example: McNamara served in the office of "Statistical Control" for the Army Air Corps during WWII. The purpose of this office was to maximize the efficiency of US bombing efforts, through a staggering quantity of statistical reports on every possible measure of bombing effectiveness. Morris creates a chilling effect by rapidly juxtaposing the sterile bookkeeping of these reports with actual film of bombing runs over Japan. In one haunting shot, footage of an urban sortie is repeated, but Morris has superimposed a cascade of numbers as the bomber's payload.

The film is, at times, a sobering reflection on war, politics and human nature from a man who, at one time, directly influenced the actions of the world's most powerful military force. The documentary also offers a glimpse at a man who has had several decades to contemplate his role in world affairs. At times, tinges of regret appear, creeping into McNamara's voice and welling in his eyes. Yet he stops short of clearly admitting his mistakes or taking blame, especially for US policies on Vietnam. His internal conflict is almost as captivating as the historical drama in which he played a key role.

Overall, The Fog of War is a compelling and extremely well-made film.

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