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Man O' war

Fog of War puts Robert McNamara on the defensive

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Former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara picked up many names over the decades. David Halberstam called McNamara and the rest of John F. Kennedy's cabinet the "best and the brightest" in his critical history of the same name. Detractors compared McNamara to "An IBM machine with legs" for his corporate number-crunching approach to military planning. Vietnam War protesters branded him "warmonger" and worse when the conflict spun out of control under his watch.

Documentarian Errol Morris profiles McNamara in The Fog of War, a title that evokes the gray areas of military decisions and the contradictions in McNamara's own character. An articulate, commanding speaker, McNamara makes many about-faces throughout the film, from candid to evasive, haunted to defiant. As an eyewitness to some of America's most fraught moments of the 20th century, McNamara makes Fog of War essential viewing, especially at a time when the United States is flexing its military muscles abroad.

Morris subtitles the film "Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara" and puts on the screen such quotes as "Maximize efficiency" and "Get the data." The gimmick deliberately mimics the wording you'd find in an executive motivational best seller, but shouldn't be taken at face value. Morris repeatedly shows -- and McNamara acknowledges -- the many times he failed to follow his own advice.

Fog opens with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and McNamara cites "Empathize with your enemy" as the key that averted nuclear war with the Soviets. (He vividly describes former Soviet ambassador "Tommy" Thompson persuading Kennedy to have faith in Nikita Kruschev.) But only a few years later, McNamara and the rest of the government disastrously underestimated the commitment of the North Vietnamese.

At times McNamara judges himself harshly. During World War II he participated in the planning of the firebombing of Japan, which killed 100,000 Tokyo residents in a single night. He still sounds shocked at the number of casualties, and quotes Gen. Curtis LeMay's remark that if the United States had lost World War II, they'd be hung as war criminals. LeMay, shown with a stogie crammed in the corner of his mouth, otherwise comes across as gung-ho as a character from Dr. Strangelove.

The portion of the film that deals with Japan inspires Morris' most imaginative stylistic flourishes. When McNamara describes his statistical analysis, animation shows actual numerals dropping over Japan from a bomb bay. When he talks about the staggering fatalities in cities across Japan, Morris puts the numbers in perspective by comparing them to U.S. cities: 67 percent dead in Tulsa, 21 percent dead in Omaha, etc.

McNamara proves less forthcoming about his feelings on Vietnam. In Oval Office recordings, Kennedy and McNamara both sound reluctant to commit more troops to Southeast Asia, while Lyndon Johnson sounds as reckless as George W. Bush in "Bring 'em on" mode. McNamara admits to making errors in waging the war, but won't publicly apologize for it.

When interviewing his subjects, Morris uses a device he calls the "Interrotron," which permits his subjects to look directly at the camera and see Morris on a small monitor. The effect on film is that the interviewees appear to sustain eye contact with the audience. The filmmaker also puts his sources in unflatteringly sharp focus, like Richard Avedon photographs that show every face wrinkle and clothes rumple. Though a vigorous 85 years old at the time of Fog's filming, the years have clearly taken a toll on McNamara. In newscasts from the 1960s, he wears a little half-smile, as if exhilarated by power and public service. Four decades later, the corners of his mouth have sunk to a disappointed frown.

Morris gives Fog thematic ties to his 1999 documentary Mr. Death. On the surface, McNamara has little in common with that film's Fred A. Leuchter, a designer of humane execution equipment who gets embroiled in the Holocaust denial movement. But both men fascinate Morris by discussing the calculus of killing: How do you execute with mercy? How do you wage war efficiently? Can you quantifythe value of human life?

As an executive at Ford Motor Co. in the 1950s, McNamara devoted himself to saving lives, not taking them. Trying to improve automotive safety, he uses the disquieting simile: "People should be packaged like eggs, to prevent breakage." In Fog's weirdest sequence, Morris recreates an experiment in which skulls wrapped in towels were hurled down stairwells, revealing how fragile the human body can be.

Nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar, Fog contains flaws. Historians suggest that McNamara exaggerates his own dovishness during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War. And while Philip Glass' repetitive, escalating soundtrack suits a film about the arms race, it sounds too much like every other Glass score.

McNamara becomes an intriguing mystery in The Fog of War -- you feel like you'd need a Ouija board to find his moral compass. He seems to have a conscience, but out of pride, loyalty to his presidents and other unknowable reasons, he won't admit that Vietnam left him with blood on his hands. In a phone conversation with Morris, he says that admitting guilt would be a damned-if-he-does, damned-if-he-doesn't situation. McNamara would rather be damned if he doesn't.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

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