The Fog of War

It's not an overstatement to say that Errol Morris has changed the face of documentary filmmaking. Known for a string of slick, absorbing docs (The Thin Blue Line, Mr. Death, A Brief History of Time, et al), Morris once was the bane of other nonfiction filmmakers who accused him of cramming too much artsiness into his movies. But as time went by, the purists were silenced once it became accepted that documentaries can be stylish.

Morris himself likes to focus in on creepy, morally ambiguous characters, and former US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara fits the bill. Derided for being the man behind the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo (which killed 100,000 civilians) as well as for taking the US into Vietnam, the highly intelligent - and somewhat haunted - McNamara is allowed by Morris to narrate his own story to us directly (thanks to a neat invention of Morris's where the interviewee looks at the filmmaker through a glass and actually winds up talking to the camera), reflecting on the ethics of war and the responsibilities of those who engage in it.

It's fascinating, but not revelatory. McNamara, always in charge even when the camera is pointed at him, chooses his words wisely, and we miss the opportunity to catch him in any truly unguarded moments (though he tears up at the mention of JFK's death, which might seem a cheap shot except that it reveals the duty he felt towards his Commanders-in-Chief). Instead he dispenses opaque rhetoric left unchallenged by Morris. (At the film's start, there is an outtake which reveals both McNamara's and Morris's understanding that the Secretary is not going to be caught off guard in this film.)

"The fog of war" is an apt title, for in the end the only clear message is that the nature of war is so byzantine and unpredictable that nobody will ever truly understand what it is or why we wage it. It's a bit maddening, because I for one left the theatre ultimately having to shrug and say, "Well, so what was the point?" while admitting that, had I more of an active interest in US military policy, or a better knowledge of Vietnam or the Cold War, I would have understood more.

The film can ultimately be accepted mainly as a portrait of what happened between the so-called clarity of warfare during World War II and the uncertainty of every war the US has fought in since. There's a catchy score by Philip Glass, too.