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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
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   Fog of War, The  


The Fog of War:  Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

Reviewed by Liverbird

Director: Errol Morris
Genre: Documentary
Country: USA
Language: English
Year Released: 2003
Runtime: 95 min

Just watched the screening of this very much acclaimed documentary which won an Oscar for the "Best Documentary".

I believe it truly deserved a nomination for the Oscar just based on the fact that Errol Morris managed to turn a possibly flaccid and highly controversial look at the issue of the US involvement in the Vietnam War to a tapestry of a well-made documentary which, other than the interviewer throwing questions and news reel footage, contained no other narrative other than Robert McNamara's recollection / views.

I have watched a fair bit of war documentaries with most of them focusing on the Second World War and the rise of Hitler. Though I was no less intrigued by how the documentary-maker managed to piece the facts on a certain subject matter together, most of the usual run-of-the-mill ones contained a narrative which, at best, can be deduced as a discourse partially and directly influenced by the maker. Somehow, for these documentaries, I would leave feeling being enlightened and educated on the events and issues surrounding the war, but never felt intrigued or in awe.

Errol managed to leave me not only vastly educated by the American foreign and war policies during and after the Second World War (which had a bearing on all future policies), but intrigued by:

(a) how he managed to put all facts required for anyone to appreciate the political circumstances of that time by putting quotes by McNamara together, including his many anecdotes,

(b) his brief overview of the events which shaped the US - from the First World War all through to the present, and

(c) his ability to engage the audience emotionally.

The entire documentary presents the issues, the ideas, the discourse and the anecdotes in one smooth and uninterrupted flow. It contained all, if not most, of the ingredients which make it a compelling documentary. The various shots of the 85-year-old McNamara, juxtaposed with footage and sound bytes of his younger self, allowed the audience to compare and contrast the difference a person divided by the vastages of time and not having the advantage of hindsight. Morris, with his clever use of available footage or sound bytes, managed to give audiences a peek back to the past and right into the private meetings/discussions of the office of the US President. I was left with the feeling of "being there" myself. We got to see how McNamara was enjoying himself while talking about his younger years and how he managed during courtship and married his wife after "nine months" of getting to know her. We got a few good close-ups of when McNamara broke down and feeling all emotional when he talked about how he chose the spot where Kennedy, the man who brought him into office, was buried after his assassination.

This documentary made me want to know more behind the scenes and delve into the covert, coat-and-dagger world of the hallowed corridors of the White House and added more facets in my postulation of the possible going-ons behind the Bush Administration's rather unpopular invasion (and not liberation) of Iraq. Despite all these, there seemed to be something strangely lacking or missing in the documentary which just stopped me from considering The Fog of War as one of the best I have ever watched.

Nevertheless, it is one documentary which will possibly be a must-watch for students doing American politics or history in the 21st century. Even by filtering out all the political mishmash, one can still glean into the philosophies of McNamara, who once was one of the most powerfulmen in the White House, after him having lived through two World Wars and played a key role in the Vietnam Conflict.

Though the documentary avoided a direct address or a clear-cut conclusion to the issue of whether the responsibility of the heavy US casualties in the Vietnam War belonged to McNamara, the closure was a very telling one, and in my opinion, an obvious indication of what Errol Morris' stand on the issue was.

Just to end off, here are the 11 lessons of Robert McNamara:

1. Empathize with your enemy.
2. Rationality will not save us.
3. There is something behind one self.
4. Maximize efficiency.
5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war.
6. Get the data.
7. Belief and seeing are both often wrong.
8. Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning.
9. In order to do good, you have to engage in evil.
10. Never say never.
11. You cannot change human nature.

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