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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Fog of War (review)

Or, as the subtitle explains it, Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. Oh, how I wish we could force the current administration to experience, Clockwork Orangestyle if necessary, master documentarian Errol Morris’s (Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.) latest miracle, in which he confronts McNamara, one of the principal players in some of the most terrifying and awful politico-military events of the 20th century, on ethical issues of warmaking. If that sounds like a contradiction, it’s only because McNamara continues to confound: He admits quite freely that his involvement in planning the firebombing of Tokyo, in which 100,000 Japanese civilians were killed, certainly earned him the name of “war criminal,” yet new evidence Morris uncovers shows that McNamara was not the hawk of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations he’s been perceived as. Morris’s unique method of interviewing leads his subject to look directly into the camera, making eye contact with the audience, creating an intimacy unparalleled in the documentary genre. Intercut with McNamara — still spry and sharp in his late 80s — is archival footage that’s mostly been unseen till now, and it’s all scored by what Morris calls the “existential dread” of the music of Philip Glass to profound effect. Though it focuses on events from half a century back — the firebombing of Tokyo in WWII, the Cuban missile crisis, the rampup to the Vietnam War — this is a film shockingly relevant to the state of the world today, underlining the horrible explicit and implicit message of the film: We don’t learn from history, and human nature is such that we’re almost driven to make the same mistakes over and over again. We could try, though, couldn’t we?


MPAA: rated PG-13 for images and thematic issues of war and destruction

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

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