The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)

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9.0 Overall Score

Reflective, smart, thoughtful


Movie Info

Movie Name: The Fog of War:  Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

Studio: Sony Picture Classics

Genre(s): Documentary/War

Release Date(s):  May 21, 2003 (Cannes)/December 19, 2003 (US)

MPAA Rating: PG-13

fog of war robert s mcnamara

Robert McNamara has some thoughts on Vietnam and war…

War is complex.  The rules and what you think you are doing when trying to win a war often aren’t clear until long after the fighting stops.  Robert S. McNamara is a controversial figure.  Some cite him as a reason the Vietnam War escalated and that his efforts during the war changed America forever…hindsight is 20/20, and Robert S. McNamara has thoughts about his role in the United States and regrets.

Directed by Errol Morris, The Fog of War:  Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (often just shorted to The Fog of War) is a war-politics documentary.  The film premiered at Cannes and was released to positive reviews.  It won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2019.

Vietnam was the big bad black mark of the past growing up.  You would see homeless vets and know they had fought in Vietnam.  Everyone seemed to still be reeling from it in the 1980s, and movies like First Blood and Missing in Action took up the cause of the war that America lost.  Robert S. McNamara (June 9, 1916-July 6, 2009) was the Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968 as the Vietnam War ramped-up and often is seen as part of the reason the war divided the country.

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What is the cost?

Morris does the movie as an interview, and he does sometimes push back on McNamara.  Robert McNamara outlines his life, his upbringing, his earliest memory of the end of World War I, the pain of World War II, and the decision to get involved in the Kennedy administration.  This jumps around a little as he does this because tangents awaken thoughts on the matter in McNamara, but he’s very sharp and still knows how and when to talk.

The interview could easily have been an apology/justification of McNamara’s actions, and it is in some ways.  McNamara admits faults in the war planning and knows that decisions he made had consequences.  He tells how errors in judgment and perception led to the brutal battle in Vietnam, and he shows a lot of how his relationships with President Kennedy and President Johnson affected diplomacy enactment.  Like war, it isn’t cut and dry.

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Problems forming

What is evident about the film is that McNamara has honestly reflected on his role.  There are some things he’s proud of and other places where he knows he failed.  It is interesting to see and in some cases hear how planning that can affect and take the lives of people is done…when do the ends justify the means and innocent deaths save future lives?  It is something that people have to think of and also try to ignore to keep the goal of a war in line.

The leadership demonstrated in The Fog of War is in sharp contrast to many of today’s leaders.  While there is partisanship in The Fog of War, the level of partisanship is nowhere near today.   The “country” seems to be the goal, and the parties are secondary.  People in positions like McNamara need to recognize the bigger picture and where their decisions will stand ten, twenty, or fifty years down the line…it is something in the moment that cannot always be recognized by McNamara demonstrates that an open mind can create change along with peace of mind.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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