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.