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The Fog of War

Perhaps it's time for the world to be introduced, once again, to Robert S. McNamara. He's been living in retirement for some time, and it's likely that most politically active young people today are not completely aware of his place on the 20th century world stage — unless, that is, they happen to be students of either the Kennedy/Johnson administrations or the Vietnam conflict. McNamara served for seven years, under both Kennedy and Johnson, as the Secretary of Defense, where he soon found himself embroiled in the Vietnamese struggle, which offered the American public a nightly body-count on television and no clear sense of mission from the White House. As the highest civilian authority at the Pentagon, it was McNamara who became most associated with the war, forced to work within the parameters set by the Oval Office while often being personally vilified in the press as an aloof know-it-all who seemed far too concerned with data and detail rather than the Big Picture of the war in southeast Asia. After departing the government in 1967 when he and President Johnson no longer could see eye-to-eye on defense matters, McNamara headed up the World Bank until 1981, where he dedicated his professional life to addressing the plight of third-world nations. But his college-textbook persona remains inextricably linked to Vietnam, and tacitly to the 58,000 Americans who died there. Fortunately, noted documentarian Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control) convinced McNamara to sit for an hour-long installment of the PBS series "First Person." The interview ran eight hours, and McNamara agreed to return for three more sessions, leading Morris to create The Fog of War (2003), a feature film that would win an Academy Award for Best Documentary. As with all of Morris's documentaries, The Fog of War is a modest yet mesmerizing experience. One is immediately struck by how sharp McNamara is — despite the fact that he's 85, his recollections are lucid and his observations at times razor-sharp. Morris (often heard off camera) frequently prompts him to talk about Vietnam, on which at least half of the film is dedicated. But the film's alternate title, Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, indicates that this is to be a life story, and it is. McNamara lived among the most American of lives, growing up poor but studious, eventually attending Berkeley and Harvard, serving during World War II in the Pacific, working as a high-paid executive at the Ford Motor Company (where he was president, briefly), accepting the Sect. of Defense position from President Kennedy, leaving the Johnson administration for the World Bank, and taking part in postwar panel discussions in Russia, Cuba, and Vietnam. McNamara has been a witness to history as well as a participant, and Morris wisely turns on his camera and lets the man tell any story he likes (and it seems at times McNamara won't bend to the director's occasional prodding either). His recounting of the American firebombing of Japan is both shocking and sobering, he has a day-by-day memory of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his fond recollections of Kennedy bring him to tears (McNamara selected Kennedy's gravesite at Arlington). But the stories are meant to serve as lessons, and the 11 here reflect the successes and failures of American foreign policy during the 20th century, as well as the things McNamara himself learned while one of the nation's policy architects. Arriving on DVD in May of 2004, it's impossible to watch The Fog of War and not see it as an argument against the Bush Administration's foreign affairs, if not a direct rebuke against the Iraq invasion. McNamara doesn't mention George W. Bush once, but it's not hard to guess, when McNamara is speaking, what Morris would like us to infer. Columbia TriStar's DVD release of The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio that fills the room with Philip Glass's subtle electronic score. Supplements include 38 minutes of deleted/alternate scenes and a trailer gallery, and while the 11 "lessons" in the film itself are Morris's suggestions and abridgments, McNamara's original 10 lessons are listed in a separate feature. Keep-case.
—JJB



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