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REVIEW: THE FOG OF WAR

Posted by Aaron West, 3/8/04

The Fog of War (2003)
Directed by Errol Morris
Running Time: 95 Minutes

Who better to explain, reflect and philosophize on war than one of America's most notorious "warmongers", former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara? After all, not only has he been part of the most significant American conflicts, he's the guy that ultimately gave the orders, for better or for worse. McNamara, now 83, has dedicated most of his life to researching, understanding, and propagating various forms of war. He also happens to be a man of keen intellect, with strong convictions, and a captivating personality. He is the perfect subject for Errol Morris' new documentary, The Fog of War.

The Fog of War centers its message on "11 lessons", according to McNamara, learned from a life at war. These are not snippets of self-help wisdom, as the wording may appear to mean, but instead are lessons that nations and leaders should live by. They all derive from McNamara's personal experience. They range from the pragmatic "empathize with your enemy" to the philosophical "don't trust what you believe and see". These eleven lessons are arranged so that they (more or less) chronologically follow the events of McNamara's career; thereby this film also serves as a thorough documentary on McNamara's life.

McNamara gave twenty hours worth of interviews for the film, so the voice of the film is essentially his, but don't expect a Barbara Walters special. Errol Morris intersperses a great deal of stock footage, including some humorous bits of McNamara himself, but also some devastating war footage. He also utilizes stock audio conversations between McNamara and the two presidents he served under, Kennedy and Johnson. This allows the audience to superficially experience the heavy burden these decisions presented to the leaders.

The Fog of War succeeds because of both of these sharp men, McNamara and Morris. McNamara's knowledge, his calculated word choice, and even his sense of humor give this film a distinct voice. Morris proves himself (again) to be an expert documentarian, who creates images that correspond with the former Secretary's points, but he also is able to provoke an emotional reaction from the audience. This makes these lessons more compelling and meaningful.

There is one more man who contributed to this film's greatness. Phillip Glass creates a fantastic score. The score is most noticeable when it is absent, which is a sign of a great score. It blends in with McNamara's voice and Morris' imagery perfectly. It isn't overdone and doesn't draw attention to itself unnecessarily. It is simply a complement to all the other elements of an already brilliant film.

The Fog of War is a phenomenal piece of cinema. It is the type of film, much like some of Morris' prior work (The Thin Blue Line) that inspires others to reach the same level of documentary filmmaking. More importantly, it inspires discussion and thought on subject matter that affects us all. Who could ask for more than that?

Score: 9.5