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Hauntingly powerful ‘Fog of War’

Documentary about former defense secretary Robert McNamara. By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

Robert McNamara makes no apologies — he realizes it would be pointless.

And in “The Fog of War,” documentarian Errol Morris makes no excuses for the man who served as defense secretary during the Vietnam War.

Both men are deeply analytical, though, and both seek to understand the mistakes of the past in order to learn from them in the future.

Interviews with McNamara, 87, show that he’s a man of surprising candor and charisma with authority still lurking beneath his raspy voice. And he still looks very much the part of the government man, with his rimless eyeglasses, short, slicked-back hair and simple suit.

Morris also includes revelatory phone conversations between McNamara, President Kennedy and President Johnson as well as archival footage to create a film that’s deceptively simple yet hauntingly powerful.

He’s already proven himself as a master filmmaker with his previous documentaries, including “The Thin Blue Line” and “Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.,” but “The Fog of War,” may be his best film yet.

Much of that has to do with technology he created: the Interrotron, an interviewing device that allows the subject to look into the camera as if he were looking into your eyes. This becomes an especially effective tool when McNamara stabs his pen at the air to make a point, or when his chin trembles and his eyes well with tears at the 40-year-old memory of choosing the perfect spot to bury JFK at Arlington National Cemetery.

An engrossing portrait of McNamara
The film traces McNamara’s history — from his upbringing in the San Francisco Bay Area, his education at Berkeley and Harvard and his marriage and the birth of his children to his experience in the U.S. Air Force during World War II, his ascension to the presidency of Ford Motor Co. and finally his tenure as defense secretary from 1960-67.

For his intimidating intellect and his perceived arrogance, he earned the nickname Mr. “I have all the answers” McNamara. By the time we meet him, though, he’s learned a few lessons that seem to have humbled him. Among them: “In order to do good you may have to engage in evil” and “There’s something beyond one’s self.”

But the real drama comes from McNamara’s recollection of the build up to war and the desperate, bungled attempts at pulling out. (The insistent score from Philip Glass, whose work was considered overbearing in last year’s film “The Hours,” is the ideal accompaniment here.)

McNamara and Kennedy wanted to get out of Vietnam; Johnson, once he became president, admitted that he thought pulling out was a horrible idea.

LBJ comes off as a clueless warmonger, which is how McNamara was perceived back then, too. McNamara, however, has the luxury of being alive and being able to reflect on the war with perspective.

“In the case of Vietnam, we simply didn’t know them well enough,” he says.

It’s not an apology or an excuse, and it probably won’t satisfy a lot of people, but it’s insightful, and it’s especially resonant now.