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Fog Of War

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Fog Of War

Starring: Errol Morris
Director: Errol Morris
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 95 Minutes
Release Date: February 2004
Genre: Documentary

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Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

" Where were you on the morning of 9/11?" Customarily, Americans ask one another questions like this because some events of world-shaking importance leave impressions on the memory that never fade. "Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?" That's another seminal event that young people today could obviously not answer, dealing with an event of tragic importance, particularly when we ask ourselves whether Kennedy could have ended the Vietnam conflict years earlier. Going back just a little while before that, one could ask, "What were you doing on the night of October 18, 1962, when the stability of the entire world was hanging by a thread?" I can remember dining in Scarola's restaurant with my folks that night when, at 7 p.m., all patrons listened to the establishment's radio tuned to a non-music station perhaps for the first time in its history. President Kennedy announced on that hour that because Soviet missiles were found in Cuba, the U.S. had sent 40 destroyers into international waters ready to inspect and turn back Russian vessels equipped with nuclear warheads or other materials to enhance their base in Cuba. As I recall, nobody in New York had run for the hills and I had virtually no fear that the world would come to an end in a matter of hours. But now, having seen Errol Morris's riveting documentary, "The Fog of War," I'm convinced that we were a hair's-breadth away from nuclear annihilation. In this 106-minute doc, which writer- director Errol Morris whittled down from twenty one-hour sessions with former secretary of defense Robert McNamara, the eighty-five-year old statesman affords us some biographical details, particularly about his election to Phi Beta Kappa and his marriage. Mostly, though, he muses about his role in 20th Century U.S. politics and philosophizes about the nature of the beast today albeit without mentioning current activities of his country in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Errol Morris, known for such offbeat works as the noir essay "The Thin Blue Line" (which resulted in the freeing of an innocent man), "Dr. Death" (about the guy who designed improvements in the electric chair and lethal injections) and "A Brief History of Time" (about Stephen Hawking, a physicist with a crippling disease that confines him to a wheelchair), this time explores the career of a man who is not eccentric or bizarre. He folds into his interview actual clips of the Depression, President Woodrow Wilson, World War II and the Vietnam War and also some reenacted footage about the incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin that led to an escalation of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Morris is particularly imaginative in the way he presents rapid-fire shots of newspaper clippings, a split-second to each item, a technique used with great success but less developed motion picture technology in Orson Welles's "Citizen Kane." The clips are an original contribution of Mr. Morris, perhaps never seen before on U.S. screens.

Morris does not let his ego get in the way: He is not shown at all but comes across as a disembodied voice asking questions. Nonetheless, considering that McNamara had agreed to only a single interview, and had hesitations about even that, Morris must be credited with convincing the man to come back over and over until the film-maker realized he had enough material for a movie.

What makes McNamara an excellent subject is that Americans on the political left may still deride him for being an architect of America's disastrous Vietnam involvement, while those more in the center of the political spectrum take him at his word when he says that he had turned against the war, had advised President Johnson to look into a withdrawal of American forces, and was ultimately fired by a president who feared that such defeatist counsel could mean that the countries bordering on Vietnam would "go communist" if the U.S. suffered a military defeat.

The film, which played the festival circuit at Cannes, Telluride, Toronto and New York, is probably already on the short list for a Best Documentary award when Oscar season rolls around next February. It presents the 85-year-old former secretary as a healthy specimen with a resonant voice and a solid command of the material.

Among the new things we learn is that McNamara was not only an architect of the Vietnam incursion but was a major planner in World War II as a lieutenant colonel under General Curtis "bomb-'em-back-to-the-Stone-Age" LeMay who in the early sixties pushed for an all-out invasion of Cuba. McNamara tells us and Morris shows us how during World War II the U.S. did quite a bit of damage to Japan by firebombing civilians in Tokyo and (count 'em) sixty-seven cities. This, he believes, would have meant a trial for McNamara and LeMay by Japan had the land of the rising sun won the war. LeMay was out-of- control in pushing for an attack on Cuba, but more rational heads, namely McNamara and Kennedy, cut a deal with the Soviets you get your missiles out and we'll not invade the island.

McNamara convinces us as the hawk who became a dove, having visited Vietnam recently and, over dinner with his former adversaries was told that he apparently had read history. Vietnam was not a pawn of China during the sixties and early seventies but was a traditional enemy of the giant to its north, struggling for independence for a thousand years. For his part, McNamara explained that the U.S. never had intentions to be a colonial power like France but wanted simply to intervene to prevent the dominoes from falling in what turned out to be a civil war, not part of communism's struggle for world domination.

McNamara's favorite class in college was philosophy, which he attended as a freshman before he had heard of Aristotle and Plato. Philosophy served him well. He believes that if Kennedy had lived, the history of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia would have been substantially different. Johnson, who looks like a cowboy in the clips we see, comes across as a vulgar contrast with a bright young Kennedy, a man who apparently chose Johnson as his running-mate to sew up votes in the West but who obviously had little culturally and intellectually in common.

McNamara makes a fascinating subject for this series of interviews, though like Charlton Heston in Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" refuses to answer whether he feels guilty for the deaths attributed to firepower. "The Fog of War" is anything but a talking-heads doc, a beautifully edited drama of American diplomacy from the 1940's through 1975 and, if you want to include our current role in the Middle-East, where our president invokes the concept of falling dominoes to spread democracy, right up to the present day.

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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