Hot Docs Hangover – The Fog of War
Originally released in2003, the seminal documentary “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the life of Robert Strange McNamara,” about the infamous war criminal is also an strong aesthetic display of archive footage, screen shots of data and numbers, dominoes falling down on top of maps, machinery, tape recorded conversations, skulls falling down stairwells, Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s pen wagging while he’s shot off centre on a canted angle and director Errol Morris’s slightly yell-y, smarmy voice. Apparently some of the objects, especially the dominoes, counterpoint McNamara’s self-denial, but most of what he says seem to match whatever metaphoric representation is on-screen.
War is never glamorized in this documentary. Its instruments are either numbers on paper or missiles, in one scene the former visually represented the latter. Both objects represent the beginning and end stages of what happens in wars in the twentieth century. Something so small and raw is quickly transformed into a leviathan that can destroy and kill. The imagery never gets empowering like your typical soldier with a rifle.
“The Fog of War” would be maligned if we called it an examination of evil, since evil depicted on film have certain visual or plot cues, and this documentary sort of disproves what we know about that. ‘Evil’ isn’t about piercing stares in the same way that ‘art’ isn’t about someone’s self-expression of suffering. McNamara, being interviewed about his life and Vietnam, isn’t unrepentant and he also doesn’t dissociate himself from his actions. If anything he’s very passionate and slightly jovial. But his actions can never make us fully sympathetic of him and is what makes him a war criminal, despite his personality. One of his ‘lessons’ include doubt, even contradicting a Sister Aloysius-esque lesson of having to do evil to do good.He even asks the camera how much evil has to be done to accomplish good.
And yes, destruction can occur partly because of intent. But his role in showing data and pushing buttons are just as instrumental in the hundreds of thousands of deaths that he helped bring in both in Japan and Vietnam. While confronting one person who has had so much power we do tend to throw around the word ‘evil,’ but instead we get the ‘horrific,’ the consequences bearing more impact than the cause.
McNamara reluctantly blames others like LBJ for Vietnam and denies his involvement in Agent Orange, but his job as a yes-man for calculating warmongers is still just as bad. Morris implicitly delivers this message and makes him tell little bursts of truths buried under careful wording. The director nonetheless finds a place for empathy, which is McNamara’s first life lesson. In a way, he is America, going through each war and its peaceful intervals the same way the country did. We still don’t want him prosecuted despite of what he did. As many have said, he compartmentalizes, but he shouldn’t let Vietnam define his life. In his time in Ford, he did help introduce the seat belt, after all.
(I also wanna say that my apprehensions towards the documentary as a genre is probably because of the depressing material. I actually cried at one point while looking at the missiles, and couldn’t look at McNamara’s face when he was welling up.)
2003 isn’t a typical banner year like the ‘better than you remember’ 2002 nor the achievements in 2006. But the year that George Bush began the misguided occupation of Iraq must have affected the West’s popular culture. The movies of 2003 still felt like it was under the beer goggles of the Academy, but they still had themes like anti-Republicanism, subversion, helplessness, violence, etc. With “The Fog of War” also came “Dogville,” “Cold Mountain,” “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” “City of God,” “Elephant,” “The Dreamers.” That and there were a hell of a lot of sequels too.