Errol Morris may have been put on earth to make The Fog of War, a stunning portrait of Robert S. McNamara that closes a year of outstanding nonfiction movies on a high note. Morris, after all, is a filmmaker whose tolerance of moral inconsistency – indeed, his empathy with flawed men – is a strength quite apart from his talent as a craftsman of meticulously collaged documentaries like ”The Thin Blue Line” and ”Fast, Cheap & Out of Control.”
Former secretary of defense McNamara was involved in the firebombing of Japan in 1945 during World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and the escalation of the Vietnam War into the cleaving tragedy it became. Yet in his 80s, with commanding access to facts and dates, the old technocrat once reviled for hawkishness and arrogance speaks with an affecting plainness, one man going eyeball-to-eyeball with the media age. And his answers to questions about war and peace build, via Morris’ compositional artistry, to an exquisite peak of ambiguity and remorse.
McNamara always retained the look of a gray company man. But the filmmaker interweaves talking-head footage of his subject (his knobby fingers ticking off bloodless stats about lives lost in Japanese cities and lives saved by car seat belts) with graceful images, including dominoes falling and reels spinning over chilling audiotaped conversation between McNamara, who wanted to get out of Vietnam early on, and Lyndon Johnson, who wanted to get deeper in. Backed by musical semaphore from composer Philip Glass, the film is a warning beacon about fog conditions that never subside but only shift to American military involvement in other parts of the world.