Magazine article The American Prospect

Soul on Ice: The Robert McNamara of Errol Morris' New Documentary Is Clearly a Tortured Soul. but Is He Tortured Enough?

Magazine article The American Prospect

Soul on Ice: The Robert McNamara of Errol Morris' New Documentary Is Clearly a Tortured Soul. but Is He Tortured Enough?

Article excerpt

IN THE FOG OF WAR, A REVELATORY new documentary about his life and times, a disquieted Robert McNamara implores us to understand why he did the things he did as an Air Force lieutenant colonel who helped plan the fire bombing of Japanese cities in World War II, and, later, as a secretary of defense and pivotal decision-maker during Vietnam, which some Americans came to call "McNamara's War."

In his 1995 memoir, In Retrospect, McNamara said of himself and the other architects of the Vietnam conflict, "[W]e were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why." But he prefaced this nostra culpa by explaining that their intentions had always been honorable. "We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation," he wrote.

He offers the same kind of ambidextrous explanations throughout The Fog of War documentary, which in a way functions as a sequel to the book. There are distinct differences, however. The book was McNamara's; the nearly two-hour film is the work of Errol Morris, a gifted documentarian who demonstrated against the war in his student days. While Morris seeks to show McNamara as a complicated man rather than the simplistic "monster" conjured by the anti-war movement, his movie is anything but a puff piece. He had approached McNamara after reading In Retrospect in 1995, and says he found depths in the book that were missing from the reviews. (McNamara was ambivalent at first about the film idea, but eventually agreed to a series of interviews.) A key to the depth in Morris' film is his camera: This is one of those interview-based films (interlaced with previously unaired historical footage) in which the camera stares hard into the man. And the man, for the most part, does not look away. He stares back, ever straining to make his case to the audience, revealing, perhaps, more than he imagines.

Such a moment comes when, during some network television footage about American casualties in Vietnam, Morris' voice (he remains off-camera throughout the film) asks McNamara whether he felt he was "the author of stuff" or merely "an instrument of things outside your control."

"Well, I don't think I felt either," says the former defense secretary. "I just felt that I was serving at the request of the president, who had been elected by the American people. And it was my responsibility to try to help him to carry out the office as he believed was in the interest of our people." I wonder if McNamara realizes that many people will hear this response as just another version of "I was only following orders."

Morris' documentary oeuvre, which has drawn applause and earned awards, includes Gates of Heaven in 1978, about two pet cemeteries in California, and The Thin Blue Line in 1988, which helped solve the murder of a Dallas policeman and free from prison a man who had been wrongfully convicted and was facing execution. Morris' most recent film before the McNamara saga was 1999's Mr. Death, the story of Fred Leuchter Jr., a Massachusetts engineer who designed gas chambers, electric chairs, gallows and other death-penalty tools with a view toward making the execution process more humane--and then destroyed his reputation by becoming a Holocaust denier.

Intimate, intense effects are Morris' signature. They are produced in large part by an interviewing device he created and named the Interrotron. I've never seen the machine, but the filmmaker's notes describe it thus: "A system of modified Teleprompters, the Interrotron allows Morris to project his image on a monitor placed directly over the camera's lens. Interviewees address Morris' image--while looking directly at the camera, which lets ... the audience achieve eye contact with his subjects."

One of the movie's most powerful passages covers McNamara's little-known service in World War II, when he was attached to Gen. …

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