Seldom Said

Saturday, January 07, 2006

An unexpected find

Just finished watching The Fog of War on DVD, which Alice ordered by mistake from LoveFilm. I'm so glad she did.

This commendable feature-length documentary is a fascinating retrospective of the life of Robert S McNamara, who was (amongst other things) the US Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson. The film's's sub-title indicates it's basic structure: "Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara". These lessons are drawn from an extended interview with the man himself (now in his late 80s), which is interwoven with a wealth of historical footage and accompanied by an original score by Philip Glass.

The most obvious focus is McNamara's frank analysis of the Vietnam War and the lessons that should have been learned from it, but the preceding accounts of his experiences during the Second World War (including his role in the decision to fire-bomb Tokyo and more than 60 other Japanese cities) and the Cuban Missile Crisis are no less compelling. I was left with a powerful impression of a sensitive and intelligent man, who, given a tremendous burden of responsibility and called upon to make monumentally difficult decisions, faced up to the challenge to the best of his abilities.

Apparently the interview was originally supposed to last for just an hour, but McNamara ended up talking for 8 hours and then stayed to carry on the next day, and came back again a couple of months later. Watching the emotions playing over his face as he talks about his experiences it seemed clear that this was a tremendously cathartic experience for him.

Even if you're not that keen on documentaries, I'd recommend this film: it presents an engaging (if at times chilling) narrative and McNamara is a very arresting central character. His "lessons" also have an unmistakable contemporary relevance that should be difficult to ignore.


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