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The Fog of War (PG)

Review by: Jack Foley | Rating: Two

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: 25 additional scenes; TV spots; Theatrical trailer; Robert S. McNamara's 10 Lessons.

ROBERT S McNamara was the US Secretary of Defence during some of the most significant moments in modern history, including the Cuban Missile Crisis and the early days of Vietnam. When he talks, you tend to listen.

Hence, anyone with an eye on current world events, or even those that don’t, should flock to see The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara, the compelling new documentary from Errol Morris.

As politically relevant as it is historically intriguing, the film delves into the corridors of power during some of the key decisions of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, as well as taking a look back at the factors which led America to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, and the crippling Depression of the 1930s.

Through it all, McNamara serves as both guide and narrator, using the benefit of hindsight to examine and re-evaluate much of what happened.

Whether the ensuing interview is devised as a way of wiping the slate clean for McNamara, or merely serves as a cautionary tale to future leaders, is something for viewers to decide, but there is no denying the man’s power to capture your attention.

His insight into foreign policy may even help to explain why the world is in the state it is today, while certainly serving to hint at why America has become so hated.

It is perhaps, ironic, therefore, that the earliest memory McNamara confesses to having is as a two-year-old, witnessing the jubilation in San Francisco at the end of World War One, the conflict that was dubbed ‘the war to end all wars’.

For, years later, he was to be involved extensively in World War Two, as a war planner, subsequently becoming part of the mechanism that planned and executed the extensive firebombing of Japan.

McNamara is almost unapologetic when he tells us that, in a single night, in 1945, 67 Japanese cities were bombed, and an estimated 100,000 lives lost, as part of a devastating US massacre that occurred just before the atomic bombs were dropped.

Why then, he asks, was there a need to follow-up with the nuclear deployment? Sadly, it is a question he chooses not to answer, although his remark that, had America lost the war, both he and Air Force General Curtis LeMay may have been tried as war criminals, might be more telling.

After all, ‘what makes it immoral if you lose, and not immoral if you win?’

It is questions such as these that remain as pertinent, then, as they are today, particularly in light of Americas’ much-maligned current foreign policy.

McNamara, who was 85 when interviewed (and 87 now), isn’t asked to comment on such things, but his words will strike many chords with those with a feel for current events.

Likewise, his question concerning how much evil must be done to achieve good things is another rhetorical humdinger - the type of which, by its very nature, offers no easy answers.

As McNamara reveals, as part of his lesson, you must never say never, and seldom answer the question that is asked of you, but the one you wanted to hear. With this in mind, it perhaps explains why Morris, the documentary-maker, seldom succeeds in pinning his subject down.

McNamara is as sharp and straight-talking now, as he was then, only prone to sentimentalism and regret when touching upon the effect his career had on his family, or the assassination of John F Kennedy.

He remains fiercely loyal and respectful towards the people he worked for, as well as conscious of his own fallibility.

You genuinely believe him when he states that it was only blind luck that prevented the world from escalating into nuclear war at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis (due to an ability to empathise with one’s enemy), while the same lack of empathy may have contributed to the misguided decision to progress with the Vietnam War, which, for McNamara, represented his one great tragedy.

His biggest critics (and he had plenty) accused him of costing the lives of thousands of US soldiers, even though we hear him explaining, to Kennedy, the need to set a timetable for removing advisors form Vietnam in the days prior to his death.

And while he publicly endorsed Johnson’s wish to continue the war, his ongoing reservations eventually spelled the end of his political career.

One only has to look into McNamara’s eyes to realise that this is a man still haunted by past decisions, no matter how defiant, or insightful, the words he is spouting.

Yet therein lies the true power of Morris’ documentary, which follows in the wake of his equally well-received conversations with subjects including Randall Adams, a man whose wrongful conviction for murder was reversed , and Stephen Hawking - every military commander is prone to mistakes, it is learning from them that can make all the difference.

Along the way, McNamara also provides a wealth of anecdotes to keep viewers hooked, ranging from his pioneering role in the motoring industry's adoption of safety devices such as seat belts, during his time as a Ford executive, to his subsequent meeting with Castro, in 1992, when the full extent of the Cuban Missile Crisis was revealed to him.

And while the lessons are consistently entertaining, the biggest test may yet be for future politicians to heed them.

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