As stressed by Robert S. McNamara, the principle at the heart of Errol Morris’s The Fog of War is that reason has its limits. Such a statement, coming from someone once considered a clinical intellectual in the business of society and government, and indelibly linked to our disaster of the Vietnam War, feels at once like a life lesson and personal confession. As Secretary of Defense under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and as a leading strategist during the firebombing of Japan during WWII, McNamara is an individual who has been intimately involved in some of the darkest stains in the bloody legacy of the American 20th century. When McNamara discusses the errors of human judgment and the breakdowns and failures of rationality, one may detect an apologetic tone in his voice. McNamara’s hindsight can also be read as pedagogical, a series of instructions for how to read historical records when necessarily filtered through individual experience.
This is an idea Morris plays with by structuring Fog of War around 11 lessons, the titles of which are taken from comments made by McNamara. One reads in these philosophical “maxims” certain tensions within McNamara himself, troubled interactions between sets of beliefs such as “empathize with your enemy” and “there’s something beyond oneself.” Is McNamara the soulless technocrat he has long been accused of being? Is he the bearer of a deep and terrible guilt? To its lasting credit, The Fog of War does not provide easy answers. Its portrait of McNamara is one of a man who, now in his autumnal years, finds himself looking back at a life that shared a terrible intimacy with the history of the world. The public ramifications of that life are left open to debate. Morris maintains his usual ironic distance, both wary of and fascinated by his subject, only it’s clear that this time Morris’s interest is far more sympathetically inclined.
Morris allows McNamara the dignity of his memories, yet never allows the viewer to forget the deeply troubling moral questions—both on a personal and societal level—bound to those memories. For example, by utilizing recorded conversations from the Kennedy and Johnson White Houses that indicate that McNamara had far more complicated opinions on Vietnam, Morris successfully endeavors to correct his subject’s one dimensional, computerized, war-mongering image. When the director’s familiar stylistic rhetoric transforms bombs falling from warplanes into gently floating numbers, the filmmaker refuses to let that image fade away completely. In some ways, Morris’s search for McNamara’s conscience is a search for the conscience of America, but on a more profound level it is a demonstration of the need to “witness.” McNamara was a witness to history, but he was also an important participant in it, and in the final collapsing of both of those roles (both active and passive), it could be argued that Morris is attempting to use one life to symbolically illustrate the collective “innocence” and guilt of an entire nation.
Near the end of the documentary, McNamara explains the source of the film’s title. The term refers to the fact that “the human mind cannot comprehend all the variables” in war and finds itself overwhelmed and enshrouded by a painful complexity. It is from within this fog—which seeps over from a country’s past and into a man’s heart and mind—that Morris asks his questions and, quite rightly, expects few answers. It would seem that reason certainly does have its limits. The Fog of War deserves its position as the centerpiece of the New York Film Festival and must rank as one of Morris’s best works. Focusing on a subject who gives off a quiet, labyrinthine presence before his camera, Morris’s latest slowly transforms itself into haunting portrait of a life forever interwoven with history.