Among the best documentaries ever made, Errol Morris’ The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, compellingly examines Robert Strange McNamara’s disturbing look back at the 20th Century’s greatest global conflicts: World War II and the Cold War. The result is a chilling set of lessons he learned in his tenure as Secretary of Defence under JFK and Johnson during the Vietnam War, and his duty analysing the effectiveness of Allied bombing during the second world war.
This is a document of my childhood. The Kennedy administration defined the era into which I was born. These were men who served in World War II and remained both giddy with war and horrified by it. Theirs was a world view that saw nations locked in lethal conflict, who codified a policy of Mutually Aussured Destruction — literally, MAD. And just how mad, how desperately close we all came to experience such cataclysmic destruction, McNamara tells of meeting Castro years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. He asked him three questions: Did you know there were already nuclear missiles on Cuba when the crisis began? Would you have recommended that Kruschev launch them if the US attacked? What do you think would have happened to Cuba if they were launched.
That may be the most startling revelation in a film overflowing with them, insights from an inside perspective during pivotally crucial moments in history. The bombing of Japan during World War II. The Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cold War and Detente. The war in Vietnam. McNamara was not just there. He was an architect of policy.
McNamara knows how to tell a story. I believe he could make taking out the garbage seem like an epic task. This is a man taking a long hard look back at his life and thinking, “my God, what have I done.? How close we were to annihilation! And for what? We were wrong about so many things! But thank God, too, that we got it just right enough.” Just, but just barely.
Meanwhile, the film’s director, Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line and A Brief History of Time), has crafted an intense cinematic experience both visually and aurally, with the aid of Philip Glass’s soundtrack and McNamara’s gravelly voice. There’s always something a little eerie and unsettling in Glass’s music and here the affect is like a hive of bees worrying at the beekeeper’s netting — will they get in?
The world has become another place since then. The immortal battle between equally powerful nations ended, abruptly, just half a decade after Orwell’s year came to pass. With luck, we’ll never return to that kind of madness. Unfortunately, we appear to have flopped into the fire. Perhaps we’ll come through this moment in time too, a little wiser, a little less clever and mean-spirited. A little chagrined at the outcomes of our best laid plans. A film like this is less important as a document of what has happened than it is a cautionary tale about what occurred within governments at crucial moments in history without public knowledge. Or about what is happening even now?