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Hard Lines and Second Thoughts

Errol Morris' new documentary on Robert McNamara, prime architect of the Vietnam war, is half in, half out of the fog.
 
 
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Four years ago, I had the opportunity to conduct a 40-minute radio interview with former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. I found him fascinating. A formidable intellectual wrestler, agile and combative, he was also remarkably self-reflective, ready to re-assess anything and everything about his life and career, brimming with second -- and third and fourth -- thoughts about his role as prime architect of the Vietnam War. My only regret was that I didn't have the opportunity to lay down another half-dozen hours of talk with him on tape.

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris ( The Thin Blue Line, Mr. Death) did, and the artfully constructed 106-minute film that emerges -- one that clearly intends to portray the now 87-year-old McNamara in all his complexity and ambiguity -- evokes a handful of compelling and tantalizing passages. Consisting mostly of the gnomish former Pentagon chief talking at the fixed camera, intercut with newsreel footage and delicately executed re-creations staged to augment and punctuate the narration, The Fog of War unpacks some stunning moments: McNamara's virulent denunciation of nuclear weapons; his call for a more cooperative foreign policy; his emotional musings and teary-eyed remorse over the firebombings of Tokyo (in which he played a role in the closing days of World War II); his stirring emotional homage to Norman Morrison, the Quaker pacifist who immolated himself right below McNamara's Pentagon office window during the height of the Vietnam quagmire.

Vietnam and McNamara's role in that war naturally reside at the center of the documentary. But here, Morris' handling of the subject provides more frustration than satisfaction. This period is the Gordian knot of McNamara's life. In his books and interviews, he has toyed and tugged with the strings of that history. His explanations for his contradictory behavior have been, well, contradictory -- sometimes self-serving, other times piercingly self-critical and revisionist.

In Morris' film, which relies in part on archival recorded phone conversations, we hear the young McNamara, just seated in his Pentagon job after being hired away from his post as president of Ford Motor Co., energetically counseling President Kennedy to withdraw all of the 16,000 U.S. military advisers then deployed in Vietnam.

Three months later, after Kennedy's assassination, McNamara is back on the phone with his new boss, Lyndon Johnson, and the grumpy Texan is reaming him for ever having suggested an American withdrawal. For five more years, until he was essentially fired by LBJ in 1968, McNamara would zigzag between predicting disaster in Vietnam and faithfully carrying out the murderous escalations ordered by an obsessed American president.

Though it's no doubt McNamara's public ambivalence about his career that motivated Morris to make the movie, I fear that he misses much of the story. Morris is a more talented filmmaker than he is an interviewer. Meanwhile, McNamara is a subject so complex and so rich in nuance that he requires no cinematic embellishment -- no Spielbergian snowstorms, no dominoes collapsing again and again over a sepia-toned map of Indochina -- only intensive intellectual engagement.

Nearly 30 years after the end of the war, McNamara, who has not yet finished exploring his own psyche and moral responsibilities, is chock-a-block with stories and reflections that need to be patiently coaxed and teased out by someone willing to spend days and months not just aiming a lens at him, but rather engaging him in deeper and deeper dialogue.

Instead, the most Morris can offer is a handful of questions, awkwardly shouted off-camera. "Do you feel responsible for the war?" Morris demands near the end of the film. "Do you feel guilty?" McNamara responds curtly: "I don't want to go any further with this discussion."

But this is patently not the case. I know from McNamara's books and from my own talk with him that he's willing to go down that road if gently led -- or, if necessary, dragged. Instead of pushing, Morris just moves on, shortchanging both audience and subject.

Flawed as it may be, however, The Fog of War is very much worth seeing. Though Morris thought up the idea in 1995 and filmed most, if not all, of his film before U.S. troops poured into Baghdad, the unspoken parallels between Vietnam and Iraq are eerie and provocative. News footage of the middle-aged McNamara -- arrogant, cocky-as-hell, jousting with the press in his wire-rimmed glasses -- look uncannily like the briefing follies run today by Donald Rumsfeld. Likewise, the manner in which the Johnson administration cooked the intelligence over the Gulf of Tonkin and then proceeded to delude the American people, and itself, that we were acting on behalf of the cause of Vietnamese freedom is a sober cautionary tale that meshes neatly with today's headlines.

McNamara, recalling Vietnam, peers into Morris' camera and warns, "If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we'd better re-examine our reasoning." Those words, coming from the wrinkled little man who helped engineer and orchestrate that unique period of national madness in which America stood alone and scorned in the world, should be carefully heeded.

Marc Cooper writes for LA Weekly.