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Film / The Fog of War

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The Fog of War is a 2003 war documentary about the life of former United States Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, who served in that position under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Through the framework of McNamara's eleven "lessons of war", he examines his own career, with special attention given to his tenure as Secretary of Defense and his role managing The Vietnam War under Lyndon B. Johnson.

Directed by Errol Morris. Philip Glass composed the musical score.

Provides examples of:

  • Anachronic Order: McNamara is more interested in illustrating particular points than in a strict chronology, although each individual point is usually explained chronologically. As a whole, the film starts with the Cuban Missile Crisis, jumps back to World War I, advances to 1960 only to jump back to 1945, and so on.
  • Blipvert: Instead of The Ken Burns Effect Errol Morris uses this, often going through photos onscreen at blinding speed, like a montage where photos of the death and destruction in Vietnam are mixed with pictures of official U.S. Army casualty reports.
  • The Book of the Film: A companion book with the same name uses lessons from McNamara's life to examine issues of war and peace in the 20th century.
  • Call-Back: McNamara's first lesson is "Empathize with your enemy", which he cites in the context of the White House trying to understand the POV of the Soviets and Cubans during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Later in the film he says "Let me go back a moment", and cites the Cuban Missile Crisis and that first lesson again in the context of Vietnam. McNamara says that he and the rest of the U.S. government completely failed to understand the mindset of the Vietnamese. He explains that the Americans saw Vietnam through a Cold War anti-Communist prism while the Vietnamese regarded the Americans as the new colonial power replacing the French.
  • Due to the Dead: McNamara is notably shaken when he recalls the requiem and burial of John F. Kennedy, forty years on.
  • Fog of War: Near the end as part of his 11th lesson, McNamara talks about "the fog of war", how war is too complex for humans to understand, how everyone makes mistakes and people at the time don't have the benefit of hindsight.
    McNamara: Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.
  • Happily Married: McNamara and Margaret, his wife for 41 years. He defines it as "a marriage made in heaven". She was survived by him.
  • Honest Advisor: One of the reasons why McNamara continued in office under Lyndon Johnson and became the longest serving Secretary of Defense.
  • The Ken Burns Effect: Errol Morris largely eschews this trope in his works, but he does use it once in a while. McNamara's wry story about lunatic American generals who thought the Russians would conduct secret nuclear tests behind the Moon is accompanied by two slow zooms onto still pictures of the Moon.
  • Manly Tears: Robert McNamara's eyes brim with tears as he describes personally picking out the spot in Arlington National Cemetery where John F. Kennedy would be buried.
  • The Mentor: Much of the film has McNamara being the mentor to the documentary audience; he points out many mistakes and near-misses that he saw, and pleads with the audience to learn from his experiences. Particularly chilling is his recounting of a meeting in 1992 with Fidel Castro, who told him that, during the Cuban Missile Crisis 30 years previously, he (Castro) wanted Khrushchev to launch the stationed missiles.
  • Morton's Fork: McNamara is asked a difficult question about The Vietnam War and answers "damned if I do (reply), damned if I don't". He chooses to remain quiet.
    • However, at another point in the film, he comments that the US took an incorrect approach, looking at the war through the lens of Cold War geopolitics, while the Vietnamese saw it as a civil war that other countries involved themselves in.
    McNamara None of our allies joined us. Not Germany, not Japan, not Britain or France. If we can't convince other countries of similar values of the validity of our cause, we should be prepared to reexamine our reasoning.
  • Refusal of the Call: McNamara was reluctant about his joining the cabinet because he knew nothing about politics. JFK charmingly convinced him by saying "Look, Bob, I don't think there's any school for Presidents either."
  • Rewind Gag: The "domino theory" of the nations of Southeast Asia falling one at a time to Communism is illustrated with a Literal Metaphor clip of dominoes falling in a line over a map. Late in the film, as McNamara is talking about "what could have been" and how he made mistakes, there is a Call-Back in which the footage is rewound and the dominoes stand back up.
  • Self-Immolation: Discussed but not shown when McNamara describes anti-war protestor Norman Morrison burning himself to death right outside of McNamara's office in 1965. (There are no photos or film of Morrison's suicide.)
  • Shout-Out: Several parallelisms to Sun Tzu's treatise The Art of War are evoked.
  • The Smart Guy: McNamara's background; war data analyst, whiz kid at Ford and later successful CEO.
  • Smart People Wear Glasses: McNamara's iconic glasses contribute to his intellectual aura.
  • Stock Footage: As a documentary about the history of the twentieth century, it uses quite a lot, but usually rather well.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: In reference to the firebombing campaign:
    McNamara: I don't want to suggest that it was I who put in LeMay's mind that his operations were totally inefficient and had to be drastically changed. But, anyhow, that's what he did. He took the B—29s down to 5,000 feet and he decided to bomb with firebombs.
  • Talking Heads: Only one—Robert McNamara talking about himself and his career.
  • Title Drop: McNamara specifically mentions "the fog of war" and how war is too complex for human beings to understand what is going on.
  • The Voice: Morris never shows his face but can be heard a couple of times from behind the camera yelling questions or comments at McNamara loudly (as McNamara is 85 at the time of filming and slightly hard of hearing), like when McNamara mentions American provocations against Cuba and Morris shouts "We tried to invade Cuba!" (The Bay of Pigs operation, which was an embarrassing fiasco.)
  • War Is Hell: As Curtis Lemay puts it "War is cruelty", but a lesser evil.
  • Who's on First?: To great hilarity, when Robert Strange McNamara was asked in a telegram for his full name by his future wife in order to print wedding invitations, he wired back "My middle name is Strange," to which she retorted "I know it's strange, but what is it?"
  • Worthy Adversary: McNamara portrays Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev as rational, pragmatic counterparts during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  • Written by the Winners: McNamara admits that firebombing 63 Japanese cities and following it up with 2 nuclear bombs would be considered a war crime if not for the fact that he was on the winning side.