In the new documentary The Fog of War, Robert Strange McNamara comes across as the type of public figure we don’t see much anymore: dignified, patrician, old-fashionedly conservative with his slicked-down hair and rimless specs, the very image of the Establishment technocrat policymaker. Indeed, the Berkeley- and Harvard-educated McNamara, now a vigorous 87, has all the makings of a wise elder statesman, having passed from WWII military service to CEO of Ford Motor Co. to the post of secretary of defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to presidency of the World Bank, and out the other side. But the documentary, directed by Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, Mr. Death), is not a celebration; it’s more of a confession — a careful, calculated one — of a life led in the corridors of power. Too often for his taste and ours, McNamara was instrumental in loosing incredible death and destruction — the firebombing of Tokyo (“100,000 dead in one night”) and the long, ugly Vietnam war, on which Morris’ film dwells, hauntingly. McNamara still has the Vietnam monkey on his back, and he clearly wants it off.
Former Berkeley grad student Morris, on the phone from his office in Boston, is miffed by suggestions from the left that he’s helping rehabilitate a war criminal, and when he and McNamara stride into UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall tonight (Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.) for a talk with film clips sponsored by the Graduate School of Journalism, Morris is ready to ask McNamara to connect the dots between Vietnam and our current war in Iraq: “It seems to me that I would bring that up,” Morris opines. “The movie could actually do some good.” The filmmaker defends his subject, but only to a point: “McNamara can be held accountable for a lot of stuff. The Vietnam war was an abomination. My feelings about it have not changed.” Nor is he deterred by the observation that many Gen-Xers don’t quite know who McNamara is: “I made this movie to speak to them. Regardless of what someone thinks of McNamara, he was a central figure in the 20th century, and he has extremely important things to say to all of us.” Tickets may be hard to find. 510-642-9988.