Cutting through 'The Fog of War'

"The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara," the new documentary by Errol Morris, is as historically revealing and psychologically riveting as any film in recent memory.

Mr. McNamara was secretary of Defense under presidents John F. Kennedy, who brought the United States into what became the Vietnam quagmire, and Lyndon Johnson, who vigorously escalated American involvement there. McNamara was closely involved in major decisions during these periods, making him a target of hatred from antiwar activists who passionately opposed American policies.

Among the virtues of Mr. Morris's movie is its unveiling of McNarama as a personality far more complex and multifaceted than '60s stereotypes suggest.

Unlike some of today's most powerful American leaders, he was aware of the moral intricacy and humanitarian pitfalls that surge through every war, and this awareness appears to have grown in subsequent years. If he had given more attention to such ambiguities during the Southeast Asian war itself, its history might have been less grim.

Morris has directed "The Fog of War" in the style he developed in previous documentaries like "Gates of Heaven" and "The Thin Blue Line," never attempting to catch his subject by surprise. He believes people will reveal their deepest thoughts with little prompting if given enough time to sit before the camera, the microphone, and Morris himself as he nudges them in the directions that compel his interest.

Whatever you think of McNamara now, you'll have a richer and more multifaceted idea of his thoughts and attitudes once you've observed his responses to Morris's many questions, interspersed with archival footage and other historical material. "The Fog of War" should be required viewing for anyone concerned with the meanings and legacies of modern America's most fiercely divisive conflict.

Rated PG-13; contains violence.

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