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April 5, 2004 | by  | in Film |
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The Fog of War

Schiller once said, “individual testimony has a specific place in history but doesn’t, alone, add up to it”. That’s the nature of Errol Morris’ extremely gripping, Academy Award-winning documentary on Robert McNamara, the former US Secretary of Defence. Morris is not pretending his documentary is an objective portrayal; instead it is how a person, who was central in American foreign policy in the 1960s, perceives it all himself.

McNamara was the Secretary of Defence during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the escalation of American involvement in Vietnam, under the presidencies of Kennedy and Johnson.

What makes this documentary so compelling is that McNamara himself is the narrator. It is amazing how candid he appears in front of the camera. He acknowledges that if the US had lost World War II, he and others would have been tried as war criminals. He says the Gulf of Tonkin incident, that was a casus belli for Vietnam, did not occur. When he talks about the firebombing of Tokyo (a death toll of approximately 100,000) and Kennedy’s assassination, he appears to be crying. What makes the film so intense is that he talks directly to the camera. Morris uses a special machine that allows McNamara to look at Morris and the camera at the same time. As a result, McNamara’s testimony is extremely disconcerting, not only in its content, but its direct challenge to us as the audience.

The film is almost like a deathbed confession (however McNamara appears to be a remarkably alert 85 year old). It is divided into 11 episodes – or lessons – that McNamara has learnt in his life. Lessons it would appear that should have been learned already by others (his equivalent is Donald Rumsfeld), as the US are caught in another unpopular war. Lessons range from “empathise with your enemy”, “rationality will not save us”, “get the data” and “belief and seeing are both often wrong”, clearly something Bush and co should be taking note of. There are very obvious parallels to Iraq (a war that both McNamara and Morris are strongly opposed to) with Vietnam, as examples of unilateral, dubiously justified wars. However, the pessimistic final lesson seems to offer the reason why we seem to continually repeat our mistakes, “you can’t change human nature”.

Directed by Errol Morris
US (World Cinema Showcase)
Paramount 9,10,11 April

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About the Author ()

Brannavan Gnanalingam has come a long way from being born in the teeming metropolis of Colombo, Sri Lanka. He may be known as feature writer for Salient, but is also the only man in history to have simultaneously donated both his kidneys. He is also an amateur rapper going under the moniker Brantank and hopes to win a Grammy.

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