The Fog of War

Dir: Errol Morris
2003
Robert McNamara loves to tell a story and hinge it on one big “But!”
He does this several times in Morris’ fabulous, unnerving documentary on the man people consider the architect of the Vietnam War. “But!” he interjects, looking right into the camera and holding his index finger aloft.
This habit suggests a lot about McNamara–the “but” marks the flipside of the coin, the opposite viewpoint, the enemy’s POV. It’s business sense, it war strategist’s sense, it’s science.
Morris handles the conflicting strands in McNamara’s story well–a man who helped create the war, but who claims it was so large it was beyond his control. A man who admits the failure of the war, but will not accept any blame or issue an apology (or perhaps he knows an apology will sound facile and too late if he offers one). How mathematics and statistics helped the Americans win WWII. How those abstractions cover atrocities like the fire bombing of Tokyo and the atomic bomb drops. (Morris’ shot of numbers and symbols dropping from the bombbay doors onto a Japanese landscape is a succinct visualisation.)
Charles Taylor’s review in Salon chided Morris for letting technique get in the way of his subject, but I never felt this was the case. Morris enlivens his subjects with his (sparsely used here) use of graphics, but does leave most of the film devoted to McNamara’s onscreen narration. I came away with the feeling that McNamara knows full well what he’s done, but who is still wrestling with how abstract his crimes and his guilt should be.

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