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The Fog Of War

review by Zach B.

 

 

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (Images and Thematic Issues Of War and Destruction)

Running Time: 107 minutes

Starring: Robert McNamara

Directed by: Errol Morris

 

Studio: Columbia/Tri-Star

Retail Price: $26.96

Features: 24 Additional Scenes, Robert S. McNamara's 10 Lessons, Previews, TV Spots

Specs: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, Portuguese Subtitles, Japanese Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selections (28 Scenes)

Released: May 10th, 2004

 

 

Winner of the 2003 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Errol Morris' "The Fog Of War" is a fascinating look at former Secretary Of Defense Robert McNamara. McNamara, who worked under President Kennedy and President Johnson, is credited as one of the most influential people when it comes to politics of the 20th century. As being a main force in guiding the Vietnam war, McNamara was also involved in World War II, went on to lead Ford Motor Company and became president of the World Bank. Through a series of interviews, McNamara opens up about his seemingly complex life and work that has ultimately made huge impacts around the world.

The film is essentially broken up into eleven parts, or eleven "lessons." It is not clear where these lessons are from (they are not from McNamara - maybe Morris wrote them?), but they all lock in somehow (despite some slight irrelevance at times) to what McNamara says (I guess you could also thank the magic of editing). I personally agreed with a lot, if not all of these lessons. McNamara is a fascinating character though - for someone well into his eighties, he is tough, can be rather emotional and is certainly full of energy. He comes across humble at times, but certainly still has pride for some of his accomplishments. McNamara just bursts out the entire movie - he doesn't really pause or stutter; he knows exactly what to say - as if he is essentially thinking out loud.

We hear first hand about McNamara has done - some of the details certainly did surprise me, and I'm sure many others. McNamara makes it a point to show just how close the United States was to having a nuclear war with Cuba, and simply hammers down the aversion of it to mere luck. There's a section about McNamara helping to organize a firebombing in Japan during World War II aimed at Tokyo, which killed a giant population to say the least. But most of all, and what probably many are interested in the most, is his time during the Vietnam war and the hard truth that it was a very tricky war, let alone an impossible one to be victorious in.

The movie does highlight what he's done, but throughout, we also learn a lot more about McNamara's origins. We learn a bit about his parents, his late wife and how he wanted to go to Stanford but couldn't afford it so he started out at Berkley instead. McNamara also went to Harvard, and made his history there by becoming the youngest assistant professor ever. McNamara personally reflects in some of the more amazing things that have happened to him, and in an amusing anecdote we find out his "strange" middle name.

McNamara does admit he has made mistakes, and talks about the lives lost because of him - in general and in specifics - but he doesn't directly apologize for his actions. He is forceful and passionate, but at times he is emotional and looks to avoid additional controversy. He also makes it clear toward the end of the film that there are some things he refuses to open up about. Still, I'm sure this film will send a shiver down the spines of many viewers. The parallels to Vietnam and the Cuban Missile Crisis in comparison to what is currently going on in Iraq is scary, and this movie certainly hits nerves when it comes to that. There is a lot of perplexity and confusion, but most of all in no clear game plans were achieved or have been achieved. A lot of this results in misguided decisions. Are the ends supposed to justify the means? Are there supposed to be winners in war, give the casualities and raw destruction and breakdowns? Maybe the winners are for those who begin lives once all the dust has settled, but then again, certain things tend to rise again sooner or later.

Morris, a renowned documentary director ("Gates Of Heaven," "The Thin Blue Line" and "Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control"), presents what McNamara has to say in a compelling fashion. Using some special equipment, McNamara is framed so that when we see him speaking, he is usually directly looking at you. While I don't know if this approach should now be abused for documentary features, I will say it was a perfect fit in this movie. History is important to our lives (or at least a sense of it should be), and when we see McNamara, somehow it makes all what he has to say a lot more personal and intense.

Still, Morris does give his documentary a solid build in other ways. To back up what McNamara speaks about at times, we hear private audio recordings. To give a more clear sense of his image, there is plenty of old news footage to go around that features McNamara. There are plenty of intense cuts between stills that focus on McNamara, as well as some of the statistics he talks about. Morris has also recorded some special footage to highlight a few other things, and seeing the imagery works remarkably well. Topping it all off though is a fantastic score from Philip Glass. Love the composer or hate him, what Glass' compositions intertwine with the topics covered pretty perfectly. It's almost as if McNamara has his own personal anthem, and the score encompasses the moods in the actions that are talked about and probably what a lot of viewers feel as they hear McNamara talk.

There's a lot to take away from "The Fog Of War," and since it covers so much ground it probably warrants some repeat viewings to fully digest everything. What I took away from it though other than the complexity of McNamara was the complexity of war itself. McNamara states that nobody can truly understand or comprehend all the variables of war since it curtails so much, and I fully agree with him. When so much is lost and so much is trying to be accomplished, with so many options at hand no less with so many people, things become muddled. There are also fabulous points made about human nature and how sometimes those we trust our lives to, such as the goverment and major leaders, make mistakes (elected officials are human after all) but don't exactly use thought all the time. For those with an interest in politics, war, leadership or want to hear a man talk personally about his own amazing life (or want something that's a really good discussion piece), then this documentary is not to be missed.

 

The film is presented in the way it was shot, that being 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. It's kind of hard to judge a transfer like this, because there is heavy use of stock footage which isn't in the best shape. With that said, I judged a lot of the transfer on footage that was specifically shot for the movie - mainly McNamara in front of the camera, but footage of tape recorders, the dominoes on the map, the skulls falling down the stairwells, etc. But overall, the image quality remains pretty sharp. There is no edge enhancement whatsoever on the transfer, but now and then I noticed a speck or two on the print. Colors seem saturated decently, but at times the picture quality is a little soft and grainy. There also seems to be high contrast at times, which results in noise and some edge halos, but this is still a pretty good transfer.

 

There isn't too much to say about the English 5.1 Dolby Digital track. It is incredibly straightforward, since the film is more or less centered around what McNamara says. His words, and dialogue from interview footage and the like, does come in very clear. McNamara's voice is definitely strong and powerful, and certainly brings clout to the track. Other than that, there isn't much subwoofer use or any real surrounds to make note of. The speakers do get a kick from the pretty cool Philip Glass score though, which does help add tension at points and brings in additional strength to the track. Subtitles in French, Portuguese, Spanish and Japanese are included, plus English closed captions through the magic of television sets.

 

Though I have heard hours of footage was shot for this movie, the big thing here are 24 Additional Scenes that total around thirty-eight minutes. No reasons are given why these fully edited scenes were cut from the final film, but I guess some are a little repetitive as far as relevance goes. Still, they're all very fascinating as you get more insight and more stories from McNamara. Such nuggets include more on working with JFK, some Vietnam strategies, the 1964 Johnson campaign ad, political figures and his own wife starting the "Reading Is Fundamental" campaign which led to her winning the Medal Of Freedom. The scenes are presented in nice two-channel sound and very good quality non-anamorphic widescreen. Even if these probably could have been put into the film some way, they certainly make great supplementary information.

Robert S. McNamara's Ten Lessons are ten text slides you can read that focus on his thoughts on the United States when it comes to politics and wars. Some of these are similar to what is presented in the film, but they are a lot more detailed. While not all of you will agree with McNamara's lessons, and some of you may find one or two controversial, there's a lot to take to heart as far as his mistakes and what he's learned. There is an optional audio introduction from McNamara that doesn't say much, other than that the lessons in the movie aren't his (but these ten are). Certainly worth reading.

Rounding out the disc is a Previews section that has a trailer for "The Fog Of War" (in non-anamorphic widescreen and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound), plus two other trailers for Columbia Tristar titles. Also in this section are two TV Spots for the movie.

 

"The Fog Of War" is a fascinating documentary that still may surprise even the most serious history buffs. It's a fabulous portrait of Robert McNamara, but also of morality and war in general. The DVD features a decent presentation of the film, and while there are not a plentiful amount of extras, the deleted footage is certainly interesting to watch and most welcome. If you have any interest in politics generally, this is a film that is well worth your time and that won't disappoint.