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The Fog of War - Preview & US reaction



Preview by: Jack Foley

THE US National Board of Review recently named The Fog of War as the best documentary of 2003, and it also proved one of the bigger talking points of this year’s London Film Festival, for its timely look at the role of former American Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara, who served in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

Directed by Errol Morris (of The Thin Blue Line, Fast, Cheap and Out of Control), the film is structured in the form of ‘11 lessons from the life of Robert McNamara’, who, at the age of 85, reflects back on the political processes at play in several of the key conflicts of the 20th Century – from the Second World War, to the Bay of Pigs, and Vietnam.

Described as being both ‘lucid and candid’, McNamara emerges as a man smart enough to recognise the tragedy of serious errors of judgement, both his own and others, but also remains incredibly proud of his achievements.

He was originally granted one hour of interview time, but ended up filming over 20, making this a complex and involving exploration of the broader moral, emotional and philosophical issues at stake.

Morris has also assembled an extraordinary array of archive material, and sets it alongside the beautifully photographed interview footage.

Talking about the inspirations behind it, Morris stated: "I started to think about making the movie in 1995 following the publication of his book, In Retrospect. I found the book endlessly fascinating.

"But, for me, it raised more questions than it answered. At the same time, reading the book was an unusual experience because many of the reviews seemed to be about a book that was different from the one that I was reading."

And speaking of his approach to McNamara, he adds that getting him to agree to the interview proved easier than initially anticipated…

"In fact, it took very little convincing," he remarks. "I started talking to him in the spring of 2001, right after his book, Wilson's Ghost, was published. I honestly think, when I called him, that he thought I was part of the book tour. He loves coming to Cambridge.

"He loves going to Harvard and seeing the places where he used to live... But two days before the interview he called saying that although he had agreed to come up, it really didn't make much sense. He didn't really know why he had agreed to come. It was a bad idea.

"He went on and on but after going through a fairly extensive list of reasons as to why he shouldn't do the interview, he said, "But I said I would do it, so I will." And he did."

The ensuing documentary could be one of next year’s film highlights.

US reaction

Given the film’s success in the US National Board of Review awards (which are the first of the season), it is little wonder to find that the film received widespread acclaim when it opened, on a limited basis, in America earlier this year.

The Washington Post referred to it as ‘a stunning documentary about former Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, that casts new light on his role in major American political events of the 20th Century’.

While the New York Daily News wrote that ‘now, in Errol Morris' fascinating documentary, an 85-year-old McNamara looks squarely into Morris' camera and, with his eyes occasionally yielding tears, rehashes his life with a mixture of guilt, pride, candor, sadness and self-delusion’.

Shadows on the Wall observed that ‘this is a beautifully produced film, expertly edited with a haunting Philip Glass score and statistics that are meaningful and extremely disturbing’.

And Compuserve wrote: "Beautifully edited with never-before seen clips from the Depression, WWI, WWII, Vietnam to show how Robert McNamara changed from a hawk to a dove."

Reeling Reviews, meanwhile, noted that ‘The Fog of War is one of the most stylistically stunning of Morris's works and his subject, often accused of accelerating the war in Vietnam, is by turns keenly intelligent, contrite, defensive and ultimately human’.

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