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The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)

The Fog of War

Robert S. McNamara. A whole new story.

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 102 minutes

US Certificate: PG-13 UK Certificate: PG


Robert S. McNamara. If you don’t know the name, he’s the bloke who was America’s Secretary of Defence under both Kennedy and Johnson, spent a lot of time on the front of ‘Time’ magazine in the early 60s, and has been accredited with much of the blame for Vietnam. Now aged 85, he seems like a nice old geezer and, like most nice old geezers, he spends most of his time talking about the war. And well he should, because to say war has played a fairly major part in his life would be the understatement of the fortnight.

In the ‘Fog of War’ – the Oscar-winning documentary that was originally intended as a 60-minute episode of the TV series ‘First Person’ – director Errol Morris prods, rather than interviews, old Bob. Like anyone’s dear old granddad, McNamara is happy to talk at length of the old days, with minimal prompting required – all Morris does is nudge the topic of conversation in the right direction from time to time (and, unsurprisingly, that direction is often ‘Nam).

The end result is a fascinating piece of film. Morris pieces it together to form eleven “lessons” in the nature of war – lessons that you can’t help but feel haven’t been learned by today’s equivalent conflict-mongerers. Without doubt McNamara is a man who has made mistakes, and he’s startlingly open in his discussion of many of them. At one point he even states that, had America lost the Second World War, his behaviour would have resulted in him being tried as a war criminal (an image helped along by his striking resemblance to Laurence Olivier’s tooth-tugging Nazi war crim in ‘Marathon Man’). At the same time, however, he’s clearly reluctant to come across as apologetic for anything he might have done in the past, leaving us never quite sure of how much he regrets and how much he doesn’t.

Morris has put his spotlight on no end of characters in his years as a documentarist (his past projects include interviews with personalities as diverse as wheelchair-bound brain-box Stephen Hawking and execution entrepreneur Fred “Mr Death” Leuchter), but his work here could well be his crowning glory. Present-day events in Iraq give his subject matter the sort of relevance that cannot be manufactured (unless, perhaps, you happen to be the President), and his clever use of archive footage makes his film into a visual success as well as a thought-provoker.

It's Got: An oldie who’s still very much in possession of his faculties.

It Needs: To do something about Philip Glass’ slightly irritating score.

DVD Extras Additional scenes, trailers, and ten lessons from McNamara himself (make sure you learn them – there might be a test later). DVD Extras Rating: 4/10


There’s nothing foggy about this insightful, revealing and at-times intimate portrait of a man who made war tick.