Déjà vu all over again

Powerful documentary shows parallels of wartime politics

The Fog of War
With Robert S. McNamara. Directed by Errol Morris. Not rated.
Rated 4.0

Errol Morris has made a name for himself as a master documentarian, a canny film journalist who consistently takes fresh, offbeat approaches to everything from pet cemeteries (Gates of Heaven) to bungled murder cases (The Thin Blue Line) to assorted geniuses and eccentrics (A Brief History of Time, Mr. Death and Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control).

His new film, The Fog of War, a feature-length interview with former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, might be taken as another portrait of eccentric genius. But McNamara is too smooth and self-possessed to be “eccentric,” and if he is a genius, he is one given to plain-spoken directness and a briskly lucid kind of understatement.

What really matters here is that he was secretary of defense under both John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and thus is one of the prime movers in the period of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War. And, at age 85, he plainly feels moved to talk candidly—up to a point—about the history-making events he was involved in.

McNamara’s bold, compact remarks on the follies, misjudgments and detours of the Vietnam War are unavoidably the film’s centerpiece, and all the more so for viewers who will pick up on troubling parallels with the war in Iraq. But The Fog of War is not particularly concerned with political protest or moral indictment. Rather, Morris has structured the film around “Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” and what emerges is a fascinatingly complex portrait of exceptional human beings working desperately against the limits of their abilities to control the political machinery of modern warfare.

In both the interview and Morris’ shrewdly assembled archival footage, McNamara is as compelling and perplexing as any character you’re likely to find in movies these days. And Morris’ marshalling of the material, including those 11 “lessons,” makes that portrait into a hauntingly perceptive meditation on the tragic limitations of good intentions, reasoned discourse and brilliant intellect in the arena of post-World War II militarism.

Phillip Glass’ score combines with Morris’ brilliantly edited montages to give The Fog of War a somber emotional power that is rare in movies of any sort.