Produced by Zodiac Productions Inc.
Written and directed by Patty Jenkins
Distributed by Newmarket Film Group

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara
Produced by and Senart Films
Directed by Errol Morris
Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics

In Monster, director Patty Jenkins rehearses yet again the pitiful career of Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron), the Florida highway prostitute who gunned down seven of her johns in 1989.  For her professional malpractice, the Sunshine State executed her in 2002.  As legal remedies go, this one seems to have been grossly ill-advised.

Although Wuornos was unquestionably guilty, she should have been spared on both moral and practical grounds.  First, she was almost certainly insane by the time she turned murderous.  Second, sentencing her to death guaranteed she would become yet another celebrity victim whose many fans would annoy decent folks with their endless clamor on her behalf.

Media attention to Wuornos’ sordid story was relentless from the first.  The tabloids gleefully dubbed her America’s first female serial killer, a meritorious distinction to be sure, but one earned, alas, much earlier than the 20th century.  More respectable media outlets pondered the meaning of Wuornos, sociologically speaking.  Was she a harbinger of a general female uprising against male beastliness?  Activists strove to transfigure her into an heroic martyr.  Radical feminists thought that, while her methods were unsound, her actions had to be understood in the context of ubiquitous male viciousness.  Lesbians convinced themselves that Wuornos had been railroaded by a justice system repelled by her off-hours same-sex dalliances, especially her love affair with Tyria Moore (Christina Ricci), the young woman who would become her Judas, betraying her to the police.  In short, Wuornos became a media opportunity for those who wanted to use her notoriety to their own ends.

Wuornos claimed that she only shot clients who were attempting to rape and kill her.  Dead men never speak, of course, but it seems highly improbable that all her victims were homicidal rapists.  As for her lesbianism, Wuornos hardly seems an ideal poster girl.  She used sex opportunistically for material reward and was not discriminating about her partners.  This is, after all, the hooker’s M.O.  Her relationship with Moore—the romantic centerpiece of Jenkins’ film—seems to have been one of convenience more than passion.  Homeless and broke when they met, Wuornos must have thought the middle-class Moore a likely meal ticket.  If Wuornos’ interest in her was driven by desire at all, the passion was remarkably short-lived, lasting only a few months.  As it turned out, Moore had no financial wherewithal, which may explain the brevity of romance in their year-long liaison.  What’s more, Wuornos had been in several heterosexual affairs over the years.  She was so taken with one lover she contemplated suicide when he left her.

What is known with certainty is this: Wuornos was the product of nearly nonstop betrayal.  Her drug-addled father skipped out on her before she was born; her mother packed her off to live with abusive grandparents and left town; when she was 13, someone fathered a child with her, who was put up for adoption at birth.  When she ran away at 14, no one bothered to look for her.  On her own, she turned to prostitution to support herself.  There is little doubt that she suffered physical and psychological abuse at the hands of men over the years.  That is what happens to prostitutes, whether they choose their profession or, like Wuornos and so many others, are pushed into it by sordid circumstance.  It is no wonder that she went mad.

Jenkins portrays Wuornos as a monster of cynicism and anger who is briefly redeemed when she belatedly discovers her capacity for love in a lesbian relationship.  In light of the known facts, this interpretation of events is dubious at best.  As for the killings, Jenkins is relatively even-handed.  The first is shown to have been committed in self-defense against a paranoid sadist who beats Wuornos into submission before she can turn her gun on him.  After killing him, she goes into a war-whooping frenzy.  It is as though the dam of her pent-up anger has finally burst, letting loose the poison of three decades.  It is a catharsis she will be compelled to repeat again and again, even though Jenkins shows her other victims to be pathetic schlubs who mean her no bodily harm.  Jenkins wants us to sympathize with Wuornos as a woman so damaged by some men that she cannot help seeing all men as predators deserving death at her hands.  She conveniently overlooks Wuornos’ earlier penchant for violence.  In at least two instances, she held others, men and women, at gunpoint while committing robberies.  Wuor-nos’ behavior was clearly driven by something far deeper than the forces modishly arrayed in the sex war.

Theron’s portrayal of Wuornos has won her an Oscar and a Golden Globe.  Her performance is indisputably a tour de force.  She made her glamorous self into an ugly hulk of a woman and used dental prosthetics to twist her face into a perpetual scowl.  She gained 30 pounds and developed a truculent underclass gait.  In the film, her flat-footed bulk warns others to stand clear or else.  It is her eyes, however, enhanced by nearly black contact lenses, that say it all.  They dart and glare, two paranoid marbles rolling about in her skull.  Ricci is also excellent as the whiny, manipulative Moore (renamed Selby, possibly for legal reasons).  She uses her unusually large eyes and Kewpie-doll chin to suggest a combination of childishness and calculation.  Impressive as they are, however, what do these performances serve—a partial version of the truth, heavily edited to make a muted plea for lesbianism?  As subjects, both of these deeply troubled women seem more suited to psychiatric investigation than to dramatic interpretation.

Robert McNamara, secretary of defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations from 1961 to 1968, is another kind of monster—a freak of pure reason.  In the fascinating Fog of War, his extended interview with the skilled documentarian Errol Morris, he repeatedly punctuates his observations with the word absurd.  Recounting whatever had been unpredictable or illogical on his watch, from the behavior of Fidel Castro to the bellicosity of General Vo Nguyen Giap, he croaks, “Absurd!”  It is his term for incomprehensible outrage.  But isn’t the absurd what always happens in human affairs?  And shouldn’t he have expected as much?

In the film, McNamara sits at a desk to deliver the 11 lessons of war.  (Why only 11?)  The lessons are little more than platitudes that could be multiplied indefinitely.  “Empathize with your enemy” is number one.  “There’s something beyond one’s self” ranks third.  Number 11 is a real revelation: “You can’t change human nature.”  But why not go for apostolic gravitas with a 12th?  He might have borrowed a line from The Great Gatsby: “You can’t repeat the past.”  This is the lesson that McNamara knows he needs to learn but cannot quite bring himself to master.  In imagination, he seems doomed to go over the same ground again and again.

Like Gatsby, McNamara is a self-invented man who rose from obscurity to gain the recognition of America’s elite, only to fall into disgrace.  Of course, unlike Gatsby’s fall, McNamara’s was cushioned by his many connections, which helped him land a long stint at the World Bank.  Still, it must gall him that he will always be linked to the Vietnam debacle.  If only he could return and repeat his steps, avoiding the mistakes.  This being impossible, he has settled for putting it all into perspective, in the hope that he can still rescue his reputation.

Before sharing his lessons, he wants us to recognize his brilliance.  He tells us how he aced his exams in grammar school and was the first in his family to attend college, graduating magna cum laude from the University of California.  He also informs us that he went to Harvard Business School and afterward became its youngest assistant professor.  Later, he tested off the charts on Ford Motors’ recruitment exams.  Apparently, this whiz kid, this “IBM on legs,” as he was dubbed while a tactical planner in the Air Force, thinks his test-taking skills will convince us that his “mistakes” as secretary of defense were somehow unavoidable given the impossible circumstances in which he found himself.

The first thing we hear him say is this: “We all make mistakes.  I don’t know of any military commander who has not made mistakes.”  Later, he remarks that “there’s a wonderful phrase: the fog of war.”

Applying it to the Vietnam War, he says it means that “the completeness of our understanding wasn’t up to the challenge.”  How is that for bureaucratic doublespeak?  When Morris urges him to discuss Vietnam more directly, he insists on going back to 1945 to talk about his role as a logistical analyst under Curtis Le May.  He recalls his part in the firebombing of 67 Japanese cities.  “In a single night, 100,000 Japanese men, women, and children burned to death.”  When Morris asks him, “Were you aware of this?” he replies, “Well, I was part of the mechanism.”  Mechanism?  It is the choice of the perfect bureaucrat who is always on guard against taking full responsibility.  McNamara goes on to recall Le May saying that, had America lost the war, he and McNamara would have been tried as war criminals.  The observation seems calculated to dilute his guilt for having ordered Rolling Thunder, the bombing campaign that dropped two to three times as many bombs on North Vietnam as were dropped on Europe during all of World War II.  Left unsaid but clearly implied is this: If few Americans would be ready to call me a criminal for my part in the bombing of Japan, why have so many held me accountable for the campaign in Vietnam?  This puts the issue wrongly, however: It is not the bombing that infuriated Americans then and now; it is the dishonesty with which the war was fought.  Under both Kennedy and Johnson, McNamara disguised the nature of the conflict from the public, first pretending that it was only a matter of assisting the South Vietnamese in their struggle with the communist North and, later, after there was no hiding our involvement, pretending we were fighting to win.

McNamara is still hated by many for wasting the lives of American soldiers in a war of half-measures fought with a no-win policy.  His strategy of micromanaged containment led him to flout the military experts who, from the beginning, wanted to put in a much larger force.  At the behest of Kennedy and then Johnson, who both feared the domestic fallout of the war, he declared we would quickly establish South Vietnam’s viability, even though he knew her government had no chance of survival without our long-term military presence.  As you watch him wrestle to explain this today, our current entanglement in Iraq comes painfully to mind.  Substitute Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for McNamara, and the parallel is frighteningly complete.

Above all, McNamara wants to warn us about his obsession, nuclear war.  He recalls the Cuban missile crisis, positioning himself and Kennedy as heroes for restraining the joint chiefs of staff, who wanted to invade Cuba.  He reminds us that, although we were not sure at the time, subsequent intelligence discovered that 162 of the Soviet missiles in Cuba had been armed with nuclear warheads.  Furthermore, in 1992, Fidel Castro told him that, had American forces invaded, he would have launched those missiles at Florida.  “In Cuba, rational individuals came that close to a nuclear war,” McNamara concludes, holding his thumb and forefinger an inch apart.  Maybe, but should we be so quick to believe Castro, the renowned braggadocio?  After all, few strategies are cheaper than threatening after the fact.  And we must ask this question also: Can we trust the human judgment of an IBM on legs any more today than we could 40 years ago?