McNamara--Does He Feel Guilty?

Roundup: Talking About History

Tom McNamee, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times (Jan. 18, 2004):

In the movies, people change. George Bailey in"It's a Wonderful Life." Phil Connors in"Groundhog Day." All those jerks in those Adam Sandler movies who turn sweet. So thank God for documentaries, where people almost never change. At least that's honest.

Watch enough documentaries and it's easy to doubt the transformative powers of growing older. Documentaries tend to confirm what most of us secretly suspect on our way to grammar school reunions -- the dreamer will still be dreaming and the apple polisher will still be sucking up.

In the 1989 documentary"Let's Get Lost," jazz trumpeter Chet Baker is forever the romantic and manipulative brooder. In"The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl" (1993), the Nazi filmmaker remains resolutely disconnected from horrific consequences of her art.

And in Michael Apted's celebrated"Up" documentaries -- a series of films in which a group of British children are followed through their lives, revisited every seven years -- it's either reassuring or scary (depending on how much you, the viewer, approve of the kid you once were) to detect so much of the former child in these adults. They grow up and move along in their lives, changing careers and spouses and political views. But something fundamental to who they were at the mere age of 7 -- whether a sense of haughtiness or loneliness or gentleness or inquisitiveness -- remains in their adult incarnations.

Which brings us to Bob McNamara.

In"The Fog of War," by the documentary filmmaker (and former anti-war protester) Errol Morris, former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, who served under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, wrestles with deep moral questions about his roles in the Vietnam War and, before that, World War II.

Questions such as, did he behave like a war criminal?

He breaks a bit of news, offers a tutorial on hard lessons learned and bends over backward to explain himself.

He's not apologizing, mind you. That's not what this is about. As he stares into the camera, tears well up. But he's just explaining a few things.

So he explains. And explains. And explains some more. And before long the Bob McNamara of 2003 starts looking like the Bob McNamara of 1965. All that's missing are the charts and the pointer. The words are precise, the logic seemingly unassailable. Every decision had its reasons. But as you listen to McNamara talk, you begin to wonder: At what point does all this explaining begin to sound like the workings of a guilty mind? And if McNamara is wracked with guilt, does he even know it?

"My wife compares Bob McNamara to the Flying Dutchman -- the person destined to travel the entire world looking for redemption," said Morris."I would say he's traveling the world looking for some kind of understanding of himself."

Besides, Morris said, it's harder to analyze an error than apologize for it.

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Peter Rollins - 1/23/2004

I have just begun to watch "The Fog of War," but have already noted the "gotcha" approach to the film, much of it communicated by cinematic language. There are echoes here of "Hearts and Minds" by Peter Davis,
an Academy favorite praised by Ho Chi Minh and "The Uncounted Enemy," the CBS film which gave rise to the Westmoreland suit against the network giant. Both of the above films have been dissected very carefully for their misleading persuasive dimensions and I suspect
that "The Fog of War" will receive a similar treatment after it receives
and Academy Award.

1. At least in the early portion of the program, McNamara is filmed in a canted manner (ie, camera is twisted to the side) so that the whole picture tips to the right--underlying, I suppose, a theme of imbalance on his part.

2. The film opens with a copy-cat cut like unto the opening of Peter Davis' "Hearts and Minds"(1973). In that film, Davis was out to "get" Walt Rostow (d.2003) and discredited anything he could say by opening with a section prior to the interview in which Rostow thought he was talking to Davis and not to the camera. Rostow wondered aloud why he would have to cover the basic political and geographical information which--I suppose--Rostow thought Davis should do or would be competent to do. Rostow assumed that he was being interviewed for his personal perspective and personal history--not as a basic source of existing information. But that opening for "Hearts and Minds" was a killer and there is almost an exact copy of such an opening for "The Fog of War." McNamara is shown to be over-confident, arrogant, and intellectually punctilious in a "pre-interview" situation--which, of course, is shown AS an interview segment.
I am not sure what kind of release McNamara signed, but Rostow sued Davis for removal of the section. My memory is that Rostow won the suit, but the distributor went ahead, ignoring the court. (Not sure on this detail.)

3. Every possible credence is given to the line that McNamara was an intellectually arrogant individual--quite unlike others. Anyone who reads David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest" will recognize that the egotistical self-assurance was certainly not limited to Robert Strange McNamara: it was the ethos of the Kennedy Administration shared by a host of advisors to the president--alas, some of them teachers and/or administrators when David Halberstam was an undergraduate at Harvard (graduating in the lower third of his class).

4. Just for the record, quite a bit of the US Navy footage shown is acted out for the camera in the spirit of "Victory at Sea." It is inserted as "wallpaper" to cover narration; such a device is understandable for The History Channel and other outlets in a hurry, but is unworthy of an Academy Award Nominee. Historical films need to use pertinent historical materials and, when possible, these materials need to be properly identified.

When I see more of the film, I will add commentary, but the discussion is so interesting and needs a bit of encouragement.

By the way, I am no fan of McNamara. As a US Marine in the Vietnam era and with Vietnam service, I ran into all kinds of problems which flowed from his "system." Here is just a detail: we were using 1/50K maps in Vietnam. These maps are ridiculous for use in any small-unit action or for plotting fire plans, etc. Yet they were all we had because printing at 1/50K saved a lot of money and made a lot of sense to rational planners at the central office in Washington.

Peter Rollins
Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies