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Fog of War

Rumsfeld's predecessor

The oft-repeated adage about history teaching lessons seems commonsensical, yet few political leaders bother to heed it. They prefer to leave their mark on history their own way- and tough luck for those who suffer the consequences of their actions.

Errol Morris' Fog of War is an enlightening and depressing portrait of a man who once wielded great power in this country and whose orders determined the fate of countless people who perished during wartime. That man is Robert S. McNamara, a San Francisco native and UC Berkeley alum who joined the Air Force in World War II, worked for (and briefly presided over) Ford Motor Company, and, at 44, was appointed Secretary of Defense under President Kennedy.

McNamara's natural intelligence explains his relatively quick rise from humble beginnings to power elite; his later actions are less easily rationalized. Now at 88, he leaves a controversial legacy and a wizened perspective that echoes eerily with today's "war on terror"- especially in light of recent actions taken by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Divided into sections corresponding to 11 lessons that McNamara says the United States can take from the Vietnam War, Fog of War is a political primer for our country's fearless leaders. When you see McNamara explain what he means by such maxims as "understand the mindset of your adversary," "communicate with your adversary," "never unilaterally apply military power," and "understand that there are some problems for which there may be no solution," you want to strap President Bush and his cohorts down - à la Clockwork Orange - and force them to sit through this film without even a chance to blink.

Unfortunately, McNamara's 11th lesson would make even the most blundering idiot in power feel comfortable: "You can't change human nature." This gives himself an out as well.

By unearthing new documents, historical footage, and taped telephone conversations from the Oval Office, Morris reveals facts that have eluded previous documentary filmmakers. Whether it's the little-known story of our firebombing of Japan prior to dropping the atomic bombs, or the extent to which sheer luck prevented the Cuban missile crisis from escalating into a nuclear war, or the extreme difficulty that McNamara experienced serving under two wildly different presidents (Kennedy and Johnson), Fog of War rises above the level of historical overview. McNamara is a fascinating, unnerving storyteller.

One memorable, sobering moment comes when the film shows the 67 Japanese cities that McNamara and General Curtis LeMay firebombed during WWII. Morris personalizes it by also listing similar-sized American cities. Is McNamara sorry? Is he sorry enough? Had the U.S. lost the war, he admits he would have been tried as a war criminal.

Although McNamara sits in a chair the whole time he speaks, this is no boring talking-head photo shoot. Morris adds rich touches that greatly enhance the film. His patented "Interrotron" camera setup allows McNamara to look the director- and the audience- directly in the eye. Equally powerful is the use of music by Philip Glass. As Morris once explained, "No one does 'existential dread' as well as Philip Glass."

Fog of War packs much into its 106-minute running time. For people not keenly familiar with world events of the 1960s, the film's pace might leave them asking for more context. But that's exactly what this film should do: make people examine the past thoroughly and learn from history so we don't repeat our bloody mistakes.