It's Been Real sets out to examine and analyze the documentary in all of its forms, looking at differing forms of expression, variant approaches to subject matter, and at our unending tendency to dramatize true events as a way of understanding our engagement with them.
"At my age, 85, I'm at an age where I can look back and derive some conclusions about my actions. My rule has been try to learn, try to understand what happened. Develop lessons and pass them on."-Robert McNamara
Robert Strange McNamara was born during World War I. He claims to remember the victory celebrations he attended at two years old. He served in World War II, helping to engineer the firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities prior to the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He worked for Ford Motors during its rise as one of the most prominent car companies in the nation and was instrumental in the creation of the seatbelt, finally serving a brief tenure as the company's first president without the last name Ford. He served as the Secretary of Defense under President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson, a tenure during which he played a critical role in escalating the conflict in Vietnam. Following that, he served as President of the World Bank from 1968 until 1981. McNamara died at the age of 93 on July 6, 2009 after a lifetime as one of the most controversial figures of the 20th Century.
Eight years prior to his death, he engaged in a series of interviews with famed documentarian Errol Morris to account for his actions, contextualize his decisions, and illustrate his observations on the nature of humanity and of modern warfare. The result of these interviews became the Best Documentary Feature Oscar winning 2003 film The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. Very few people could have made this documentary, could have invited McNamara to open up and speak about his life, and even fewer could have made it as well as Morris manages. A mix between archival footage, audio, and talking heads segments culled down from over 20 hours of conversations between Morris and McNamara, The Fog of War is a masterful examination of a man who, regardless of your feelings on his actions, was of great importance to the last century in American history.
It's a testament to Morris' mastery that The Fog of War neither damns nor exonerates McNamara, allowing the man himself to account for his actions, expressing regret in some instances and holding steadfast to some decisions, even with full hindsight. Whether McNamara is candid, evasive, honest or lying, is left entirely up to the audience. Some critics have complained that Morris let him off easy by allowing him to appear as a complex man of contradictions, but great journalism is a quest for truth, not simplicity, and The Fog of War allows for us to view McNamara's actions not in black and white, but in the gray uncertainty in which they exist.
Personally, I found McNamara incredibly candid throughout the interview. He freely admits that he believes he and General Curtis LeMay would have been charged as war criminals for the firebombing of Tokyo had America lost World War II. He discusses the necessity of proportionality and efficiency, both to win a war and to keep our nation's dignity whilst doing it. He grapples with the morality of his actions and of war in general, at one point pausing and asking, "what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?" and at another pondering, "how much evil must we commit in order to do good?" He breaks down in tears as he describes walking through Arlington National Cemetery in the wake of Kennedy's assassination and selecting the spot of the president's burial, letting tears flow down his face as he recounts discovering later that Kennedy had called the spot he independently picked the most beautiful place in Washington.
The only time McNamara refuses to talk about something is when it comes to the tension his family was experiencing during Vietnam. Throughout he comes across as an incredibly intelligent man, and as someone who has spent much time thinking over his actions and their effects. He regrets some of the actions he committed and some that he saw done by men around him, yet he also emphasizes the costs of war and tries to contextualize some of the evil that our country did. Whether you agree with his assessments, it is clear the man has thought about his opinions for years, and it is fascinating to listen to him lay them out one after another. Near the beginning of the film, McNamara admits, "I think the human race needs to think more about killing, about conflict. Is that what we want in this 21st Century?"
As a man who spent the bulk of his life engaged in war, McNamara knows better than most the costs of combat. And like many men who have lived through wars, he seems to want little more than peace. He is never naÃ¯ve, however, and admits that he knows war will never stop. He just pleads that we think more critically about our engagement in it. In addition to the eleven lessons he imparts in the film, the special features on the DVD include ten more lessons, the first of which reads, "The human race will not eliminate war in this century, but we can reduce the brutality of war"”the level of killing"”by appealing to the principles of a "˜Just War,' in particular to the principle of proportionality." The Fog of War demonstrates a man who has lived at the center of his age, looking back at what his life has meant and what others can learn from it, and a documentary that manages to capture a person's view on their life so fully can be seen as nothing but a rousing success, and as necessary viewing for anyone interest in his life, his wars, or in living their own lives critically.Read more It's Been Real here
Coming up on It's Been Real:
10/30: Super Size Me
11/13: Dear Zachary
11/27: Capturing the Friedmans
12/11: Triumph of the Will