Tuesday, 26 January 2010

How Much Evil Must We Do In Order To Do Good?

I love a good documentary, I really do. I think the truth behind documentary has the ability to cut so much deeper. I remember when I first watched Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, it terrified me. And I mean in the same way that a good horror film will terrify me. (Though it's worth noting that I'm pretty much chickenshit, and get scared waaay too easily.)

Well, The Fog Of War: Eleven Lessons From The Life Of Robert S. McNamara didn't quite scare me in the same way as Enron did. It wasn't quite so immediate, but much more insidious. The fear creeps back in at strange times, and I wasn't even alive during the conflicts (or near-conflicts) that the film centres around.

The Fog Of War, which won the 2003 Best Documentary Feature Oscar, tracks right through McNamara's life, from his time as a fighter during World War II, his time as president of the Ford motor company, into his time as the US Secretary of Defense, during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War. This is the real central tenet of the doc, his tenure at the Pentagon at time when nuclear war was a real possibility. He talks of how close they came, how the world got lucky, how their intel was wrong and it almost happened despite there being nothing to fight about. He goes through numerous administrations, notably those of JFK and LBJ (why don't presidents get TLAs anymore? They're so much fun), with astounding truth and honesty. He really doesn't hold anything back, and while you can see that he's trying not to either paint himself as a hero, nor as a renegade criminal, he does not shy away from such statements as saying that, if they had lost the war, he probably would have been tried for war crimes. He talks about the mistakes he and others with huge amounts of power during those precarious times made, which could have or did have drastic consequences. He mentions that one always hopes to learn from his mistakes, but with nuclear weapons there is no room for mistakes - you drop a bomb, you're destroying nations. The end. And it's a slippery slope down which you're propelling yourself head first.

McNamara was, and probably still is, pretty much despised in the States. He was referred to repeatedly as a war-monger, he was personally held responsible by the public at large for the disaster that was Vietnam. And he doesn't really try and dispel that responsibility, to his credit. He tempers it, yes, but he doesn't pass the buck. What he makes you see, however, is that war is a dirty process, not only on the ground, but in the war rooms where politicians are shuffling papers and signing names to make it happen. So many opinions and egos are at play that there is no simple solution. And while the buck ultimately has to stop with the President, he definitely pauses for a hell of a long time with him, so he has to take a lot of the blame for a very tumultuous period in global politics. And while he does try to rationalise it, he does take it.

It's an eye-opening film, and so nice to see a politician talking so openly and honestly about his own mistakes and virtues without it ever feeling particularly hyperbolic or self-flattering. It's simple and down to earth. Director Errol Morris has also managed to craft a compelling documentary out of an interview with one old man - no mean feat. Large parts of the film is just the talking head of McNamara. Talking head docs are often the worst, but Morris combines archive footage, recordings of conversations between some of the most notable political figures of the last fifty years, and some nice little modern day interludes with McNamara's voice track overlaid. He creates a documentary that is quite riveting, despite everything working against the odds here. Large credit here has to go to McNamara himself, whose truthfulness, dynamic delivery and obvious character keep the narrative moving.

A valiant film. 4 stars.

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