THE FOG OF WAR takes a rather unique look at the Vietnam War. It does so by providing insights and recollections from one of the architects of the war, Robert McNamara. McNamara served as the Secretary of Defense during Lyndon Johnson’s administration and helped draw up the overall plans for the war. Many critics point to the dual mishandling of the war on both Johnson and McNamara’s parts as the reason it spiraled out of control.
THE FOG OF WAR provides a forum in which McNamara provides his insights onto how the war was planned and where it went wrong. The filmmaker, Errol Morris, tries to present the fairest format from which McNamara can pontificate. Some may wonder if this is a bias towards the subject matter which is, of course, McNamara himself. The presentation seems not to be so much of a biased one as much as it is a detached one.
This can be a rather unique means of showing/presenting the subject matter. Morris prefers to allow McNamara a forum to present his version of history. The viewer is then left to draw his/her own opinion on him.
In other words, McNamara is allowed to speak for himself and on his one behalf without interference on the part of Morris. That is, Morris does not undermine McNamara’s musing by inserting his own personal opinions via contradictory voice over narration or inserting unflattering film or still images. Again this is not so much a biased presentation as much as it is a detached one that allows McNamara to speak for himself without interference or interjection.
This is not to say that McNamara is presented in a positive light all the time. At certain points in the film, the viewer truly has to wonder whether or not McNamara truly understood how he was being presented in the film. At many times during the feature, McNamara is presented as someone that is barely cognitive of his environment. Often, he is droning off into “space” as he discusses past events in his role as Johnson’s cabinet member. Had Morris wished to create an overall image of McNamara in a biased manner, he assuredly would not have allowed his subject to be presented in such a weak and droning manner.
However, McNamara’s recollections of prior events are quite lucid, clear, and detail oriented. So, the presentation of McNamara is somewhat disjointed. This gives the viewer a somewhat conflicting depiction of the man which, in an odd way, makes the documentary quite compelling. But, it does not perpetually present McNamara in a completely positive light. It also does not seek to ‘bury’ McNamara although certain sequences are decidedly unflattering. As such, it would be safe to say the documentary is not biased in either direction.
Ultimately, the presentation of McNamara yields the figure of a man tortured by his failures. McNamara’s legacy is not a positive one as Morris eventually has to turn the subject of the film to the unraveling of the war effort. Clearly, McNamara has to feel some of the blame for it. This does not exactly present him in a positive light although there is some level of sympathy for him offered in the film.
This is not to say McNamara is presented as a tragic figure. Much of the devastation of the failed war effort is placed on his shoulders. However, a certain air of sympathy permeates the film. It would seem almost as if Morris feels somewhat sorry for this very misunderstood historical figure.
The Fog of War. Dir. Errol Morris. Perfs. Robert S. McNamara. 2003. DVD. Sony