Near the close of Errol Morris’ documentary, “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” the eponymous 87-year old former Secretary of Defense quotes a few lines from T.S. Eliot that aptly and poignantly sum up the documentary’s theme of moral reflection. “We shall not cease from exploration,” McNamara says, “And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” That he chokes back tears while pondering the profound truth of that passage speaks volumes about the gravity of such reflection for McNamara and about his ambivalence for the place that he has returned to.
That place in which he now finds himself and on which he reflects, I think, is his conscience, his own sense of humanity. It has, over his lifetime, taken its share of beating and bending in the service of realpolitik, but, in the end, we are encouraged and even inspired to find that McNamara’s conscience is in good order. From his days helping to strategize the “efficient” destruction of Japan in WWII on through his tenure as Kennedy and Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, presiding over the imbroglios in Cuba and Southeast Asia, McNamara’s explorations have taken him through some rough existential territory, in a century split apart and scarred by moral chasms.
“The Fog of War” is more than a history lesson and a biography of a fascinating American thinker. As McNamara parses through the political events and crises that enmeshed his career, the movie becomes a deeply felt testament of a man struggling to wring meaning and redemption out of history’s hard, unyielding surfaces. He may defend or rationalize everything from the firebombing of Tokyo to the necessity of escalating tensions in Vietnam, but he is just as quick to heap criticism—whether explicitly or veiled in his troubled ambivalence—on himself as he ponders America’s complicity in the 20th century’s great conflicts, and his own involvement in them.
Morris structures “Fog” as eleven segments, each exploring a different facet of McNamara’s notions about the morality of war and human nature. As they relate directly to his life and career, they become a primer for understanding his character, his evolving thought and, indeed, his humanism. Woven elegantly around McNamara’s interview are enriching archival newsreels, photographs, taped conversations and beautifully, often lyrically, staged recreations. It is Morris’ tried-and-true aesthetic, a probing, mesmerizing style which matches up so well with McNamara’s enormous intelligence and charisma as to make “Fog” his most satisfying work since “The Thin Blue Line.”
Indeed, for more than its sobering view of warfare and humanity, I was struck by “Fog of War’s” power as an intimate character study. McNamara, with his rarefied intellect, may seem at first, above the common fray. But, in the end, he is like all of us who struggle to reconcile with our own pasts and live by our principles so that, on arriving where our journeys began and seeing that place anew, we may be at peace with what we find.
Directed by: Errol Morris
Cast: Robert S. McNamara