Monday, July 25, 2011

The Fog of War - a must-see documentary

For once, I get to review a movie with worrying about a 1000+ word count. Fog of War, the 2003 documentary by Errol Morris is an exceptional film, and I don't have to recount a plot or describe actors or anything like that. This time out, I can just tell you about a great picture and suggest it. And FoW will surely make you think about war, death, and how close we are/were to nuclear destruction...

Errol chose a unique man to interview, one pivotal to 20th Century American history: Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense under JFK and LBJ. Film fans will already be familiar with him from Thirteen Days, as he's Kennedy's closest advisor. In the end, Fog won both an Oscar and an Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary, and still holds 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. It's available for free on Google Video, and I suggest you take advantage of that.

What's really amazing is that RSM's most famous job post doesn't limit him to rehashing Vietnam or the Bay of Pigs. In 1940, Robert was the youngest, highest paid-prof ever at Harvard, having received an MBA there only one year before. He ran Ford Motors, and lead the World Bank after leaving Johnson's cabinet. Clearly, we're dealing with a capable man who could do anything greatly.

Some of the most interesting statements are about what he did between teaching and running Ford. During World War II, McNamara taught business analysis techniques to the US military, then joined the Air Force as a Captain. Working in the USAAF's Office of Statistical Control, he was responsible for helping bombers become more effective on their attacks in Japan.

It incredibly tense, hearing a man at the heart of a decade's wartime command decisions. It's shocking to hear him admit that Americans were dropping bombs on Japanese civilian populations to ensure military surrender. And it's breath-taking to hear him say that the 40% destruction by firebomb of X Japanese city (like Osaka) is the equivalent of X% destruction in Toledo, or Akron, or Albany.

In one of my favorite moments ever in film, the audience is treated to a montage of statistics, comparing the loss of life in Japanese place names to a possible loss of life all over America. His attitude, in old age and 6 years before his death, is neatly contained in this paraphrase, "if we hadn't won, we'd up for War Crimes." 

So as Robert McNamara talks about his political and military experiences, Morris organizes the interview in a new and exciting way: questions are posed off-camera, and the topics are organized by the 11 Lessons that McNamara has learned about war. This may seem like a dry, or "smart" or "important" film. Yet this philosophical discussion has an urgent emotional pull, because it's been gained from the loss of tens (no wait, hundreds) of thousands of lives.

The broad appeal of this documentary is not a surprise. Given the positions RSM held, the events he was a part of, this movie's demographic is: everyone. Here, the US Secretary of Defense that served during the Bay of Pigs says we came "this close" to a US-Soviet nuclear war, and that luck saved us; he also says we face the same danger today. It's compelling.

I'm possibly even more impressed by the director's pioneering use of a camera technique that allows the interviewer to make eye-contact with his subject, while also allowing the interviewee to look straight down the lens. This method gives the audience a conversation and allows us to look into the eyes of the on-screen person, not being forced to see them in 3/4s view, like on a talk show.

I don't know if whoever's reading this likes documentaries or interviews. Maybe you like watching reality tv people talk about their phony lives, or aging musicians talk about what drug they took when they wrote some song. Tastes vary. Here, highlights include finding out the Northern Vietnamese' beliefs about America's 1960s-70s intentions, and what Castro did when the US and Soviets were about to start fighting.

So while beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, I must insist: you're dead wrong if you think that the genre and topic of FoW isn't exciting, emotional, and engaging.

Another moment helps give the work an even more profound context - we get to witness McNamara clearly bs both himself and the audience: he relates that the stress of DC life made his wife and children emotionally troubled and even extremely physically ill; he says it caused on of them to die. Moments later, though, Robert actually states that everyone in his family benefited from the experience.

That particular sequence spins the whole film into murky waters. Is this lonely, bespectacled, liver-spotted guy lying to protect his own feelings? Or to not make his family sound weak? Is he protecting himself, or trying to convince the audience? Is he just trying to justify the most personal human cost in a career built on death? At the very least, the film seems even more authentic for it - because being bs'ed in a conversation is fairly normal thing, too.

The quiet, magnificent score by minimalist composer Philip Glass lends the film poignancy and immediacy; it's a perfect accompaniment, and lends Morris a lot of credit in my book, just for his decision-making alone...

Do yourself a favor, gather a few friends and check out Fog of War. This was fun to watch, and I wouldn't mind making anyone I know sit through it. They wouldn't need my convincing for long, and I don't think you will, either. I'll end this review with a list of the 11 lessons recounted in the film.

  1. Empathize with your enemy
  2. Rationality will not save us
  3. There's something beyond one's self
  4. Maximize efficiency
  5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war
  6. Get the data
  7. Belief and seeing are often both wrong
  8. Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning
  9. In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil
  10. Never say never
  11. You can't change human nature

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