Leuchter worse than McNamara

The Fog of War

PG cert, 107 min

February 4, 2004


Errol Morris’s The Fog of War, an artfully assembled interview with former US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, won Best Documentary at this year’s Oscars. It’s high time Morris won, since he’s America’s pre-eminent documentarian and wasn’t recognised for his 1988 masterpiece The Thin Blue Line. But, fascinating though it is, The Fog of War didn’t deserve the award. It should really have won Best Actor.

Straight to camera, McNamara discusses his involvement in several of the most costly military engagements of the 20th century. Under Gen Curtis LeMay, he helped orchestrate the campaign of firebombings that killed nearly a million Japanese civilians in 1945. Under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, he was instrumental in the escalation of the Vietnam war. Yet Morris never pierces his guard for a second.

Garrulous, engaging and still intellectually razor-sharp at 87, McNamara confesses up front that he’s made errors of judgment in his lifetime. You won’t catch him admitting what they were, though. Typically, he meets Morris half-way by decrying the needless loss of life in Japan and stating that he and LeMay (a conveniently bloody-minded foil here) would have been prosecuted as war criminals if they’d lost.

“What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?” he goes on to ask. It’s an excellent question that illustrates Morris’s wider concerns perfectly, but its unanswerability is McNamara’s escape clause.

Morris usually knows exactly how much rope his interviewees need to hang themselves — see Mr Death, his chilling 1999 study of execution expert and Holocaust denier Fred Leuchter. McNamara is no such monster, but only with unusually tricksy editing can Morris contrive to get him on the back foot at all. And far from providing an ironic underscore, the sinister throb of Philip Glass’s music is so familiar by now as to be oddly soothing.


© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2004.