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Robert McNamara tells all (well, most)

I went to see The Fog of War tonight in the IFI in Dublin. It’s a great portrait of the years from the 40’s to the 90’s.

McNamara covers all the events and tells us what it was like and what he thinks now. It’s impressive as a film, because it tells the story and tells the lessons all together.

While he tells us what he thought and what he thinks now (for example, that the United States, as the most powerful country as the world has no right to go to war unilaterally, without the support of its allies) he doesn’t tell us straight out what he feels. He refuses to tell us how the Vietnam war effected his family, and he refuses to say how he feels about Vietnam war, or why he didn’t campaign against the war after he’d left Johnson’s administration. For all this, you have to read between the lines.

And even though the film has plenty of artifice about it, you can read between the lines and see a sensitive human being who regrets the things that happened. This is essential to the film. Without the core of honesty, the film would be nothing more than a dodgy political documentary.

The obvious question which is neither answered nor explicitly asked by the film is this: why is this old guy doing this? Why, at the age of 85 years, is he subjecting himself to the tough head-on style of this film, which he cannot editorially control? Why is he bringing up the killing of Japanese civilians in the Second World War? If he’d wanted to tell us all what a good guy he was, or what he’d done, or what he thought, he could have written a book, on his own terms, and had control over every word.

The director doesn’t ask this question, but he does hint at it. The clips and recordings of McNamara at the Pentagon and in the White House show a person who manipulates the media, controlling television and newspapers to his own ends and using all the tricks to make his message as palatable as possible.

The reason he allowed the film to be made appears to be a mix of regret and desperation. McNamara is sorry for some of the things he had to do, even though he won’t admit it. As he comes to the end of his life, he wanted to put down on film the things that he had learned.

And he will succeed admirably in this manipulation. Sony has already classified this film in its ‘classics’ section, and has issued a lesson plan for schools to use in conjunction with the film. How could any teacher resist the opportunity to use this film as teaching material? My guess is that every high school student in America for the next 40 years will see this telegenic film at least once. As a result, Robert McNamara may end up being the most influential historian of 20th century America.

The question that comes to mind for me is: who else will make a film now that McNamara has put some of his cards on the table. Will Margaret Thatcher tell us her story? I think it might have seemed very different from the inside to what it looked like on the outside. What about Nancy Reagan? But I suppose the one we’d all really like to see would be Nobel Laureate Henry Kissinger, telling it like it was. I don’t know why I think it, but I believe that that is a story that we will hear more of before his death.

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