Artblog Celebrating 20 Years!   Support Us Today!

Number crunching


Steve and I saw Errol Morris’s documentary The Fog of War last Saturday. We went with our friends Pam and Laurent, and while our collective first response to the long face-off with the 85-year old Robert McNamara was negative (the movie was long; the interview questions weren’t as tough as we would have liked), I now — hindsight is all — believe the movie to be great.

What I really didn’t like was Robert McNamara.

Morris’s moviemaking is a seemingly deadpan approach. Turn on the camera and let McNamara talk. You never see Morris. And when you hear him ask McNamara questions, the director’s voice seems to shout his questions as if from across a great divide. The almost clinical objectivity allows McNamara his dignity.

But, because of the harrowing visual sequences of war intercut behind the words of the aging bean counter (he was the head of Ford Motor Company before becoming Secretary of Defense under Kennedy) you begin to understand the disconnect between McNamara’s bottom line war-making and its results.


You have an automatic sympathy with an old man who tears up repeatedly as he tells his stories. But the unapologetic explanations for war-making were not sympathetic. Here is a guy who still doesn’t get it.

Morris’s visual montages occasionally rise to the level of metaphoric genius. One image alone stands out, capturing McNamara’s disembodied, bottom-line reasoning about war as well as the filmmaker’s questioning of that reasoning. As the Defense Secretary talks about the bombing of Japan, his words get caught up with the numbers and it’s clear there’s an abstraction in his mind between those numbers and what takes place in the real world.

Behind these words, Morris shows a sequence of bombs dropping from a plane and suddenly the bombs change into a bunch of numbers falling. You and I know they’re not numbers but it’s not clear whether McNamara understands this or cares. For this sequence alone, the movie is a must see. But for anyone interested in our current foggy situation (and the parallels are chilling) I recommend this stiff cup of coffee. And for a great, behind the scenes interview, see Greg Allen’s chatty piece on his blog.