An indispensable work of art, especially at this moment in our history, Errol Morris’s new documentary declares its theme before you even step into the theater. The Fog of War, says the poster–which, as a title, is not at all the same as The Crimes of Robert S. McNamara. Yes, the film’s sole interview subject is the former Defense Secretary, perpetrator of America’s bloody war in Vietnam; and yet in labeling this movie, Morris has consigned the man to an unemotive subtitle–visible only once you’re already tucked into your seat–that promises you eleven lessons from his life. Expository vehicle and unreliable narrator, admonishing lecturer and cautionary figure, McNamara is used complexly here, but always to address what you’d expect in The Fog of War: disorientation, confusion, error and killing, considered as features of public policy.

As the study begins, Morris shows you old black-and-white films of sailors at the rail, scanning the horizon with their binoculars. Accompanying these images of tense and fallible watchfulness is an unsettled wash of soundtrack music by Philip Glass. (Morris hired Glass for the job, he says, because “no one else does existential dread as well.”) The mood of foreboding breaks only with your initial glimpse of McNamara today: a vigorous and dapper octogenarian, who apparently comes onto the screen in mid-interview. “I remember,” he insists to Morris with a broad smile. “I know exactly what I wanted to say.”

So the first words that Morris lets you hear from McNamara are the boast of a cocksure man. The statement that immediately follows, though, isn’t nearly so confident. You’re supposed to learn from your mistakes, McNamara says–but there is “no time for learning with nuclear weapons.” Slip once, “and you’re going to destroy nations.”

Example given: the Cuban missile crisis. In the opening section of The Fog of War, Morris recalls the episode by intercutting his McNamara interviews with period footage (always chosen with a fresh eye, never stock), sound recordings from the Oval Office and images of a teletype machine banging out urgent cables. In this telling, the hero of the story is Llewellyn Thompson, an adviser on Soviet affairs who urged Kennedy (in the words of the film’s first lesson) to “empathize with your enemy.” Negotiate, Thompson said; allow Khrushchev to find some way to save face, and he probably will withdraw. Kennedy negotiated, Khrushchev withdrew, no mistake was made and nations were not destroyed.

But the crucial point, according to McNamara, is that these fortunate decisions were made in the dark. Before choosing to follow Thompson’s advice, Kennedy had entertained proposals for a pre-emptive strike at Cuba, thinkingthat the warheads for the Soviets’ missiles had not yet reached the island. In fact, as McNamara learned many years later, 162 nuclear warheads were already in place, and Castro was prepared to use them if attacked. Lesson two: “Rationality will not save us.” Or as McNamara says, holding up his left hand in a disquieting OK sign, “We lucked out.”

The Fog of War turns out to be a chronological account, by and large; so by beginning in this way, out of order, Morris confirms what you might have understood by reading the poster. His subject is the prevalence of ignorance and dumb luck in war, and one man’s attempt to beat these forces by proceeding rationally: doing the research, analyzing the data. The picture that Morris invents to sum up this endeavor is a computer animation of numerals tumbling from an airplane’s bomb bay. It’s a devastating image; but if Morris had preferred to rely on archival footage, I imagine he also could have done something with Chaplin’s Modern Times. I’m thinking of the shot of a vainglorious and uninformed Charlie roller-skating backward, blindfolded, toward an abyss.

You know when McNamara tumbled, taking about 2 million lives with him. I’m interested enough in the man–in his intelligence, his good intentions, his terrible blindness–to want to know how he will respond when Morris presses him for a personal accounting. I don’t believe for a moment, though, that his self-judgment (or rather his evasion of it) coincides with Morris’s view of him. For telltale signs of the filmmaker’s opinion, you just have to look at the anomalies Morris has worked into the movie.

One of these–which causes another break in the chronological order–concerns McNamara’s meetings in Hanoi in 1995 with some of his opposite numbers from the war. It turns out that he was angered, shocked and then illuminated to learn from them–in 1995!–that the Vietnamese had seen the conflict not as a cold war confrontation but as an anticolonial struggle and civil war. Willful misunderstanding, more catastrophic in its outcome than the ignorance of 162 nuclear warheads in Cuba: No admission could be more damning to McNamara, and to the American policy establishment as a whole.

The second anomaly worth mentioning occurs under the heading of Lesson 9: “In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.” From the sound of it, you’d think this section would contain McNamara’s justifications for the Vietnam War. Instead, it concentrates on the death of a man named Norman Morrison, who chose self-immolation as a means of protest. The “evil” of the lesson can refer only to Morrison’s suicide; the “good” must be the opposition to war that he inspired. What can McNamara be thinking, then, when he says he identified with Morrison? I suppose he means that he agonized over the war to the point that he, too, felt immolated. It’s a shameful expression of self-pity, put forth in a section of the film that implicitly finds McNamara’s policies utterly lacking in justification.

Today, too, we hear a lot about evil: pure and enduring on the enemy’s side, temporary and tactical on ours. We hear about the miraculous efficiency of our armed forces, and about intelligence so reliable that it would overcome all doubts, if only it could be revealed. The world’s in the hands of the cocksure–and this bunch, unlike McNamara, doesn’t know you have to be lucky.

The eleventh lesson: “You can’t change human nature.” By the time you come out of the movie theater into George Bush’s America, The Fog of War has turned this platitude into a devastating truth. I wish all those clearheaded moral warriors could change. I wish they would learn from The Fog of War.

Failing that, let the rest of us watch it.

Since we’re on the subject of cross-cultural misunderstanding, let me mention the misconceptions that haunt one of the better year-end Oscar contenders, House of Sand and Fog. Directed by Vadim Perelman, based on a novel by André Dubus III, it’s the story of the disasters that can ensue when old-world inflexibility collides with the chaotic childishness of American lives.

In another of her desperate and tortured roles–she’s very good at them, and had better make a comedy soon–Jennifer Connelly stars as a young woman who has not yet recovered from either booze or divorce. As soon as you see the faucet dripping onto her sinkful of dirty dishes, the pile of unopened mail lying by the front door, you know that nothing good will come of her. Sure enough, she’s evicted from her little house, which is promptly auctioned to an expatriate colonel from the Shah of Iran’s air force (Ben Kingsley). He has been doing menial labor while keeping up a pretense of affluence for his family’s sake–there’s been a daughter to marry off, a son to put through college, a wife who needs friends of her own class. He has worked hard and acquired the house legally, and now he needs to sell it quickly, at a profit.

Connelly, outraged, tries to fight back; but since she thinks of her troubles as some kind of glue that falls from the sky, the most she can do is thrash about, injuring herself in the process. She doesn’t become dangerous to anyone else until she attracts the attention of a deputy sheriff (Ron Eldard), who sees in her a great opportunity to abandon his wife and kids. “I don’t deserve you,” he says, having moved in, on his own initiative, after one night of sex. “Hmm,” she replies, mustering a brief moment’s self-knowledge. “Of course you do.”

I could fault House of Sand and Fog for turning melodramatic; I could complain that Perelman throws in too many atmospheric sunsets over San Francisco Bay and too many endings. (Can’t he take pity and relieve these people of their misery?) But, that said, I found more of the mess of human feelings in this movie than in any other year-end, big-ticket release. It won’t do, if you want a holiday movie; but if you’re looking for something that suits the year’s darkest season, then House of Sand and Fog is for you.

Considering that Anger Management was one of the few watchable movies released in its first six months, 2003 turned out to be a respectable year in film. It offered the pleasurable spectacle of the Wachowski Brothers going down in flames; and it saw the release of two or three dozen good pictures, too. I don’t think any masterpieces emerged this year; but here, for what it’s worth, is what kept me interested in the movies in 2003.

Ten Best Fiction Films: Dirty Pretty Things, the picture that revived the early Warner Bros. tradition of stories ripped from today’s headlines, followed by The Man Without a Past, American Splendor, Lost in Translation, Kill Bill Vol. 1, Mystic River, Finding Nemo, Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary, Bad Santa and Ten.

Best performances by an actress: the revelatory Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Miranda Richardson (in an astonishing triple turn) in Spider and Hope Davis (American Splendor).

Best performances by an actor: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things), Bill Murray (Lost in Translation) and Paul Giamatti (American Splendor).

Best supporting actresses: Lucy Liu (Kill Bill) and Laura Linney (Mystic River), of course. Best supporting actors: Sonny Chiba (Kill Bill), Ron Eldard (House of Sand and Fog) and Tony Cox (Bad Santa).

Best directors: Stephen Frears (Dirty Pretty Things), Aki Kaurismäki (The Man Without a Past), Gus Van Sant (Elephant), Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill), Peter Jackson (The Return of the King), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation).

Best screenplays: Dirty Pretty Things, American Splendor and Bad Santa.

Best cinematography: Lost in Translation, Elephant and The Man Without a Past.

Best documentaries: Bus 174, To Be and to Have, Spellbound, My Architect and The Fog of War.

Here’s to as good a year, and better, in 2004.