top of page

On FOG of War

           It’s far too often that one encounters documentaries that take a look at recent history by an overreliance on archival footage backed by monotone voiceovers narrating textbook facts. Vietnam and the Cuban Missile crisis are segments of American History that have been too often explored by such an approach, the results being a dry recounting of events apt for screening in high school history classes only. The same goes for interviews with politicians and historical figures. Rarely do they reveal much and there’s a set metric by which the kind of encounter is undertaken. In a best case scenario a shrewd reporter may snatch an answer away from one of these interviewees,  as they dodge questions to the best of their abilities, and the process will provide some sort of insight. However rarely does a key historical, political figure sit with a filmmaker and open up about his time in office, and going further, rarely is the exercise as masterfully weaved with archival footage, documents and graphics, to the extent that it may cast a new lens upon the events, as it is in Errol Morris’ Fog of War. Robert McNamara’s interview and the ensuing film are not only outstanding based on the freedom with which the former secretary of defense speaks about events, years after his term, but also in the way a picture of the era is painted, McNamara’s words, illustrating, but not serving as final judgment to Morris’ study of American history and human nature. The film doesn’t overtly take a stance on its subject’s statements, and yet Morris is a smart enough editor and interviewer that he has no trouble guiding the viewer in a certain directions when he so desires, doing it subtly enough that it doesn’t distract from the recounting. In that sense, even at the points where the film clashes with McNamara’s retelling, it does so in a smart enough way that if McNamara himself saw it, he’d probably still feel properly represented.

           A first element that’s hard to ignore is how the former secretary of defense seems to go on uninterrupted, his narration almost becoming a monologue, and yet the storytelling remains structured, the through line untouched. Every now and then Morris will allow his questions to be heard on camera, a quick reminder that he’s orchestrating the film, a look at the documentary’s seams. He sometimes jumps in to push his subject further when given a vague answer, but also occasionally sets themes for the audience to ponder. “We see what we want to believe,” he chimes in when McNamara discusses how a bombing mission in North Vietnam took place as retribution for a torpedo attack that was misreported. McNamara himself quickly takes him up, echoing the phrase. If he’d edited this out, which he could have done easily, it would be easy to forget that what we’re being presented is after all an organized narrative, and not always necessarily McNamara’s chosen narrative at that. The fact that the whole interview seems to flow so seamlessly, from lesson to lesson and chronologically through McNamara’s life is a feat of editing work and demonstrates how much of an interview is built after the fact. What made it into the film is, without a doubt, only a section of longer extended interview recordings the filmmaker held with his subject. Morris’ camera set up allows him to cut between close ups, medium shots and wides when he cuts through the interview so that the jumps don’t become jarring. In that sense, the film is edited precisely so that it seems like a coherent narrative, and yet Morris’ interruptions are included helping the viewer navigate this narrative somewhat more objectively.

           The archival, on its part, is not used barely as an accompanying track to the voiceover but rather, interacts with it, heightening what it’s saying or even contradicting it at points, and so do the graphics added. A good example of how the graphics are used to emphasize a point is when McNamara is comparing the Japanese cities the American bombs destroyed to their American counterparts based on their size. Morris shows the parallel by switching out written names on a map and adding the percentage of destruction calculated besides them. The visual queue has a much stronger effect than the simple voiceover would give us, and the graphic visualization helps better understand the gravity of the situation. However the footage and documents on screen don’t always agree with McNamara. In a particular segment the secretary is trying to distance himself from the orders behind the bombing, even while accepting participation, and while Morris allows him to speak his mind, he overlaps this with images of McNamara’s signature on a number of files. Although we as an audience aren’t aware what the particular files are because of how fast they appear on and later leave screen, the repeated sight of McNamara’s signature is Morris’ quiet way of reminding us that he was, after all, one of the men who had to sign off on calls of that magnitude, and that whatever he might say he can’t completely distance himself from the event. The reason this approach works is because the film allows its subject to speak his mind without judging him, and yet isn’t providing a platform for him to create his own narrative as he sees fit either. One of the most effective visual metaphors used in the film is that of the dominoes falling on a map, each action having its consequence, and although it’s effective throughout, its full power only really hits when McNamara talks about looking at things with hindsight and the dominoes are reversed, standing up back into position. Visual signifiers such as this one are a great example of how Morris crafts his films with his cutaways existing in close relation to whatever soundbites he got from the interview, enriching,  and layering McNamara’s narrative.

           What’s perhaps most impressive beyond the interview itself, are however the points at which Morris stops the voiceover and lets his images do all the talking. It’s a choice that allows breathing space for the viewer to process the consequences of what they just heard, but also one that would be unworkable without the accompaniment of Philip Glass’ outstanding score. One such example is an extended sequence in which the film simply goes into footage of bomb explosions, the resulting clouds getting bigger and bigger as the score also raises its intensity. The lack of a narration and reliance on the music at this point provides space for the viewers to ponder what would have happened if the US and Russia had finally gone into the Nuclear war that McNamara described as being so close to happening. It’s as if the film takes on near-dramatic quality for a moment before the voiceover once again brings it back to its documentary roots. In a similar visual overlap, the bombs falling from a plane are replaced by the numbers earlier seen on one of the documents signed by McNamara. It’s a clever way to link the two, but going further these all illustrate how in control of his subject and topic Morris is. Through his editing and graphics he has organized a messy muddled history into a straightforward storyline. He takes these very real events that are hard to understand as tangible if not first hand witnessed, and through editing and the added dramatization Glass’ music brings, gives them their deserved weight. Morris achieves something that most other factually precise educational films about the period do not, in engaging his viewer, and making their subject’s, already authentic interview, breathe like a living piece of history instead of seeming like something out of an old newspaper clipping.

           It should be no wonder that Fog of War has received the critical acclaim and classic status that it has. After all, besides serving as a detailed character study to one of the most intriguing characters in recent American History, it is as effective a look at the cold war period, and the thought process that led to nuclear tension, as anything done in recent years. There is already value in digging into history as the film does, but it goes without saying that history itself is always relevant to the present. In that sense, understanding the mechanics of power during such a tense period would have been valuable in contrast to 2003’s political climate, when the US was first invading Iraq and the film won an Oscar, as well as to the current one in 2018 where tensions between the US and Russia are again escalating. What Morris’ portrayal of McNamara deserves respect in, is that it is genuinely interested in understanding the man, and allows him to give his version of everything he went through instead of starting off with a bias as several other reactionary filmmakers would tend to do with such a topic. He even goes through his whole personal life before getting to his choices as secretary of defense, which helps build some empathy for the man before the tougher topics are tackled.


           Morris calls his subject out when he is factually inaccurate or tries to justify himself to an extent the filmmaker himself does not agree with, but he mostly stands pat and allows the audience to draw their own conclusions. One could say he is interested in telling the story rather than in exposing anything, and in a sense that is equally an exposition of the way things can be mismanaged in periods of half-truths and confusion. McNamara’s eleven lessons thus end up being a reflection of the man’s world view, but also an interesting lens through which to understand both history and contemporary world politics and events. It’s on one hand frustrating to see how our generations problems are so similar to the ones of years past, but on the other the fact that someone like Errol Morris can recognize this and keep on producing important and relevant work creates some hope that we might yet learn from the past. In the end when McNamara leaves and Morris pipes in one last time to ask if he feels guilty, leading to a refusal to engage in that line of thought and a final “I’d rather be damned if I don’t.” The line highlights the complexity of the situation but also feels like something which any contemporary leader could respond in their own defense. However after over an hour and a half of hearing McNamara speak and being as open as he’s ever been on camera, one gets a sense that he probably does have a very clear answer to the question himself.

bottom of page