Errol Morris' "The Fog of War" is stunning. It is the sort of film that makes you forget about the process of making a film, and focus on the subjects. In this case, it is almost as if it is merely a collaboration between Robert MacNamara and Morris. As if the two of them just sat around a table one day and hashed it all out, and the cameras that were rolling were incidental.
What is clear is that MacNamara, for all his faults and follies during his time in the Defense Department, is a thoughtful man who, facing the winter of his life, is introspective about his past and is, to a degree, willing to face up to his mistakes.
"He will also not say he is sorry, even though Morris prompts him; maybe he's too proud, but I get the feeling it's more a case of not wanting to make a useless gesture that could seem hypocritical. His final words in the film make it clear there are some places he is simply not prepared to go." Roger Ebert says in his review. As the film goes on, you are almost glad he doesn't: It would seem forced and false. What we do get from MacNamara is not just a rehashing, but a re-examining of the details that led to the escalation of the war.
It is harrowing to hear MacNamara talk about the firebombing of Tokyo, and the part he played in it during WWII. The most poignant moment, to me, is his account of the attack by the North Vietnamese on American battleships in international waters. Within a few hours of the reports of possibly 9 torpedoes being launched at these ships, LBJ had launched a bombing raid against the North, and the beginning of escalation that would lead the nation to the height of the war had begun. Using audio tape of phone calls in MacNamara's office, we find out after the fact, as they did, that the reports of the torpedoes were quite possibly false, spurred on by sonar men with frazzled nerves, to which every blip was a torpedo. "I'm quite sure that torpedoes were launched. I think. Definitely." says a commander on the ship to MacNamara.
The bombing that ensued was called Operation Rolling Thunder, and the amount of ordinance that were dropped, we are told, was 4 times the amount that was dropped in Europe during the whole of WWII.
As stunning as the film's looks into the past, so too is the timeliness of it's message to a current administration. MacNamara uses phrases in public like "this is not a war on the Vietnamese people, but an attempt to win their hearts and minds," while his private phone calls reveal that he is unsure and uneasy about the degree to which the US would need to commit themselves to the war to make it winnable, and at what cost.
Admittedly, there are areas where MacNamara is less forthcoming than we'd like, and in these moments, Morris shines. His graphics and inclusion of documents and news stories provide the counterpoint. When MacNamara is unable to fully articulate just how devastating the firebombing of Tokyo was, Morris leaves nothing to the imagination, and almost unwittingly forces MacNamara's hand.
"The effect of "The Fog of War" is to impress upon us the frailty and uncertainty of our leaders. They are sometimes so certain of actions that do not deserve such certitude. The farce of the missing Weapons of Mass Destruction is no less complete than the confusion in the Kennedy White House over whether there were really nuclear warheads in Cuba." Ebert ends his review with this, and that is the point. In this time, which so closely resembles the years in Vietnam, it is more than informative, it is important to understand that our leaders are feeling their way as they go, and their actions lead to another, and another, and another until the events that play themselves out have somehow spiraled beyond their control. Robert MacNamara looks back at the events of his life and admits that it was merely luck that kept them from destroying the world.