As the director’s Tabloid accrues praise, it’s worth reviewing this disconcerting 2003 feat, which began as another entry in Morris’s First Person TV series before the box could no longer contain it. It screened at Cannes only a couple months after the Iraq invasion, and there are assorted attempts to relate former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s discourse to the concurrent liberation-cum-gestating civil war. In subsequent interviews, McNamara said that he was commenting on war in general, and would never criticize a current Defense Secretary’s actions, but it’s difficult not to read an arraignment of the United States’ Vietnam-repeating near-unilateralism into “If we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merits of our cause, we’d better reexamine our reasoning.”
The artist Morris was after something more enduring than the cheapo rushed judgments in the anti-Bush docs that deluged indie outlets and hogged arthouse space in the months and years following the invasion. Some of these slapdash docs might’ve crudely served their purpose as awareness raisers, but they marked a depressing low point for the documentary as cinematic art. Lefty agitprop products like Bush’s Brain and Outfoxed were meant to be glimpsed and forgotten, but Morris wisely holstered his bullhorn, turning an extended Interrotron interview with McNamara into a biography with Philip Glass-scored clips and Cabinet recordings. He then pogosticked off of that into an examination of the luck, egomania, and banal cruelty that goes into war making.
The movie’s subtitle is “Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” which suggests a rigid, college course structure. But the war lessons, arranged and worded by Morris, vary from the generic (“Never say never,” “Maximize efficiency”) to the nebulous (“There’s something beyond one’s self'”) and the film often digresses out of the eleven to include other maxims and guidelines (McNamara, via Morris, also adds ten more in the DVD supplements). It is one of these extra rules that bluntly marks McNamara as Morris’s competition—”Never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked of you.” The subject follows this rule throughout, and he is in control, doling out contriteness, pride, and sentiment in precise measures, and subtly nudging blame to figures like General Curtis LeMay and President Johnson while always adding that he is not blaming anyone.
Morris is only heard a few times, dimly shouting clarifications and questions as McNamara looks straight at him and us (per the Morris-designed Interrotron’s unique schematic). The obvious retaliatory tactic would be to attack McNamara with the between-interview clips and graphics. But while some of the latter are a bit lame (huge dominoes toppling over a chessboard map), they’re never underhanded. Glass’s score gives the subject’s recounting of wartime mistakes a gloomy cast, but it echoes the sensible sadness in McNamara’s “I think the human race needs to think more about killing.”
McNamara, who died six years after The Fog of War, was eager to speak, and Morris gave him enough rope to qualifiedly hang himself. He recalls helping orchestrate the firebombing of Japanese cities with General LeMay, including an attack on Tokyo that killed over 100,000 civilians in one night. After he says, “He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals,” Morris pauses on his face, and it’s such a shocking admission that you need the break to catch your breath. Family man McNamara cries over Kennedy and quotes T.S. Eliot, but his remorse is still prideful as he admits to administering and (so he would have it) begrudgingly prolonging a wrongheaded, unwinnable war in Vietnam.