The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons of Robert S. McNamara (2003) / Documentary

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for war images
Running Time: 107 min.

Cast: Robert McNamara
Director: Errol Morris
Review published December 17, 2004

The Fog of War is mostly excerpts from several interviews conducted by documenatarian Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line) initially to be used for his television documentary series, "First Person".  A different person was featured on each show, and during the interview, the interviewee would talk into something called an Interrotron, which was an interview device conceived of by Morris that gives appearance of eye contact (I'm not technically savvy enough to describe it, but you can search for Interrotron on Google for an elaborate explanation of the process).  This gives the feeling of intimacy between the interviewee and us in the audience, as we see what the interviewer would see if asking the same questions.  McNamara was to be one of the featured guests, but Morris was able to get the former Secretary of Defense to consent to what amounted to twenty hours of interviewing, over multiple occasions, and with enough footage to sustain a full-length feature documentary, The Fog of War was the result.

The Fog of War isn't a cohesive interview in the traditional sense.  As presented here, it is merely a string of excerpts that call into one of eleven categories, which are divided up into eleven rules, or lessons, which McNamara has learned in the business of strategizing such things as the Cold War, Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War under the presidencies of Kennedy and Johnson.  Even in his mid-80s, McNamara is a very lively, energetic, and articulate man, perhaps even more elegant and keenly observant about his life than at the height of his power.  Of course, he does benefit from having 40 years of hindsight to process all of it, and to his credit, he is surprisingly candid about errors he has made.  Not all things, as McNamara does choose to not elaborate about certain things, but he what he does reveal is absorbing and highly informative, from an insider's perspective to one of the most tumultuous times in the history of the United States.

Perhaps even more impressive than the content is the presentation, which utilizes actual footage, pictures, declassified White House conversations, and displays specifically made to illustrate points within the context of the interview (such as the tumbling of a line of dominoes over the map of Southeast Asia).  Even the talking head shots of McNamara are well-shot, with just the perfect amount of lighting.  Everything looks first-rate, and combined with a terrific score by Phillip Glass, this has all the look and feel of a real movie event, instead of just a simple sit-down interview session.

The Fog of War is an excellent documentary, and indeed, was honored by winning an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2004.  Recommended for all history buffs, particularly for those intimately familiar with 20th Century United States conflicts, and just for all those who love well-crafted documentaries in general.

Qwipster's rating:

2004 Vince Leo