Friday, August 12, 2022

The Fog of War (2003)


            In 2001, 85-year-old Robert McNamara sat down for an interview for documentarian Errol Morris’ PBS series “First Person”.  McNamara had served in the Army Air Force in WWII under Gen. Curtis LeMay.  After the war he became one of Ford Motor Company’s Whiz Kids and he was briefly the president of the company before Pres. Kennedy tabbed him to be his Secretary of Defense in 1961.  He continued into Johnson’s administration until 1968.  As the civilian leader of the military he is famous for his attempt to fight war using statistical analysis.  You could call his the Father of the Body Count.  He believed that data could be used in making wartime decisions. The interview lasted 8 hours and then McNamara came back the next day and then a third time later.  In total, 20 hours of interviews were used to make the movie “The Fog of War:  11 Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara”.  The theme of the movie was a discussion of the nature of modern warfare.  The documentary was awarded the Oscar for Best Documentary.  The movie used archival footage, past interviews with McNamara, and parts of the 20 hours. 

            The movie opens with the advice that you should learn from your mistakes.  And McNamara made a few.  Here are the eleven lessons: 

1.  empathize with your enemy -  ex. dealing with Khrushchev in the Cuban Missile Crisis 

2.  rationality will not save us -  although in the Cuban Missile Crisis, all the leaders were rational, you must consider that humans can be fallible 

3.  there is something beyond one’s self -  you have a responsibility to society 

4.  maximize efficiency -  ex. the fire-bombing of Tokyo  (which seems to contradict empathy for your enemy) 

5.  proportionality should be a guideline in war -  he agrees the fire-bombings of Japanese cities was a war crime  

6.  get the data -  in a statistical analysis of bombing in WWII, it was found that many American bombers were aborting out of fear, LeMay threatened to court-martial any pilot who aborted and the numbers went way down

7.  belief and seeing are both often wrong -  ex. the Gulf of Tonkin Incident

8.  be prepared to reexamine your reasoning (especially if you are 85 and want to go to Heaven) -  ex. Agent Orange (which he argues was used legally)

9.  in order to do good, you must engage evil -  to keep the Cold War cold, we had to deal with the Soviets

10.  never say never

11.  you can’t change human nature 

            The movie strikes one as an attempt to polish McNamara’s image.  Although the doc does not get to the Vietnam War until the 7th lesson, the documentary is considered by many to be a mea culpa for that war.  As you can see, it covers more ground and is actually not so much an “I f’d up” apology as an attempt by McNamara to play the role of expert on modern warfare.  For someone who fouled up Vietnam so much, this is a bit of a stretch.  And it takes a man with giant brass balls to pull it off.  In fact, he does come off as an intelligent man who was at the seat of power for a series of crises and did his best to help two Presidents, like a good robot would.  He is apparently truthful and he does admit to mistakes.  However, Morris does not press him on some of the more controversial decisions.  Like, why did you stay with LBJ when you believed that if Kennedy had lived, he would have gotten us out of Vietnam?  McNamara clearly idolized JFK, but he was only too happy to serve the man who reversed Kennedy’s plan to get out.  (That plan is based on some wishful thinking, but McNamara does believe it.)  McNamara was full of the hubris that allowed him to believe he could make Johnson’s war successful based on his statistics.  He has a huge ego.  He probably had a dream of the war going down in the textbooks as “McNamara’s War”.  He did leave (or was fired) when Johnson turned down his proposal for scaling down the war.  Hey, when I left, there were only 25,000 names for the Wall.  When Morris asks why he didn’t speak out against the war, he replies that he didn’t want to inflame the public!  Does he feel guilty about his role in the war?  He didn’t want to answer that question.

            This movie might come as a disappointment to veterans of the war who want to watch a hatchet job on Mr. McNamara.  It helps if you already have knowledge of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War.  The movie assumes you do.  You won’t learn a lot about the war from this documentary.  You may come out of the movie enraged at this man trying to play elder statesman teaching the next generation of leaders.  But show some empathy for the man that knew the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was based on bogus facts and did nothing about it. Or don’t.

GRADE  =  B-

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

On the Beach (1959)


                “On the Beach” was the first major apocalypse film.  It is based on the Nevil Shute novel that was published in 1957.  Shute was collaborating with director Stanley Kramer (Judgment at Nuremberg).  As John Paxton’s script progressed, Shute became increasingly upset with the changes to his novel.  He dropped out and disowned the film.  He detested the final product.  His death from a stroke one month after release is sometimes attributed to his extreme dislike of the film.  The film was made mostly in Australia.  Kramer had to do a lot of reshoots due to sightseers getting into shots.  Gregory Peck joined the cast because he liked the movie’s anti-nukes theme, which conformed to his personal beliefs.  Fred Astaire made his dramatic film debut.  The movie got a massive rollout.  It premiered in 18 countries on all seven continents (including Antarctica).  It was the first American movie to premiere in the Soviet Union.  In spite of the marketing campaign, the movie failed at the box office.  It was critically-acclaimed, however.  It was nominated for Oscars for Best Editing and Score (Ernest Gold).  Gold’s love theme was released as a single and reached #57 on the charts.  The film was nominated for Best Drama at the Golden Globes.  Kramer won the UN Award at the BAFTA’s and Ava Gardner was nominated for Best Foreign Actress.  Fred Astaire’s race car was a 1955 Ferrari 750 Monza Spider, one of only 35 built.  In 2011, it sold for $2.5 million.  The Department of Defense refused to cooperate with the film.  The submarine was played by the British HMS Andrew.  If you look closely, you will see it flying a 49- star flag.  That flag lasted only one year before Hawaii came in.

                The movie begins in Melbourne in 1964.  There is a vague reference to “it” coming to Australia.  The mysterious force is a radiation cloud.  An undisclosed nuclear war has devastated the other continents and Australia is about to join the club.  The movie is purposely vague as to how the world got into this.  (In the novel, Albania launches missiles at Italy, then Egypt attacks the U.S. and Great Britain using Soviet planes.  Blaming Russia, MAD kicks in.  So, it’s definitely fiction.)  The movie works as a sequel to “Fail Safe”.  We see the aftermath of a major nuclear war. 

Peck plays Commander Towers of the USS Sawfish.  Coming aboard as a liaison with the Australian navy is Lt. Commander Holmes (Anthony Perkins).  He leaves behind the only Australian who does not have a stiff upper lip.  Everyone else is going about their lives as though nothing is going to happen.  Maybe they are in denial, like Towers, who still has hopes for his wife and children in America.  These hopes are encouraged by a mysterious Morse code message coming from San Francisco.  The sub is tasked with checking it out.  Before leaving, Towers starts a chaste affair with the feisty Moira (Gardner).  The movie settles into two threads. One is the sub trek.  The other follows Moira and Julian (Astaire).  He is a scientist who blames their fate on Mutually Assured Destruction.  Julian’s hobby is racing cars so we get some action and plenty of crashes.  If you are waiting for a happy ending, stop after Julian wins the race.

                “On the Beach” is a somber movie, which is appropriate for its narrative.  For an apocalypse movie it is pretty tame.  No zombies. Luckily, it has a strong cast to hold your attention.  The big four bring it, especially Astaire who proves he doesn’t have to dance to score.  The cinematography is effective.  There are a lot of closeups to tie you into these doomed souls.  The movie has the same message of nuclear madness as “Dr. Strangelove” and “Failsafe”, but it delivers that message in a depressing way.  That makes it more realistic, but this realism is too sanitary.  San Francisco is like a ghost town, there are no bodies.  There is no sign that there was a panic.  In Australia, there is no hedonism as the end nears.  I guess it gives us hope that in a future nuclear war, if your city is not a target, your fellow citizens will take the approaching radiation cloud calmly and stoically.  I don’t know about your locale, but I’m damned sure that is not what is going to happen where I live.  With that said, we would be less likely to have that scenario if the leaders of the world powers saw this film.  Since it premiered in Moscow, maybe it caused Khrushchev to think twice in the upcoming Cuban Missile Crisis.


Saturday, August 6, 2022

The Odd Angry Shot (1979)


                “The Odd Angry Shot” is an Australian war movie.  It was directed by Tom Jeffrey and was based on the novella by William Nagel.  Nagel served in Vietnam in the Australian Special Air Service.  His book was based on what he experienced in the war.  The movie was filmed in Australia and had full cooperation from the Australian Army.  Jeffrey was allowed to use the Jungle Warfare Training Centre and the army  provided several helicopters that had been used in the war.  The movie was a modest success, but was not well received by critics.  Many of them carped about the movie avoiding criticism of Australia’s involvement in the war.  The movie was scheduled to be shown to Prince Charles when he made a royal visit to Australia in 1979.  The event did not occur due to a complaint by a politician concerning the movie’s nudity.  God forbid the Prince be exposed to penises!

            Or a boob, which appears in the first minute of the movie.  Bill’s girlfriend lets him get to at least second base (or the cricket equivalent) before he goes off to war.  The movie forgoes training (even though the training center was available) and puts Bill and his mates on an airliner headed for the Nam.  They drink Fosters on the way. A soldier comments “this is the way to go to war”.  This will be the first of nine appearances of Fosters and other Australian brews in the film.  Speaking of product placement, there is a nice plug for Qantas airlines.  “If you are going to Vietnam – fly Qantas!” 

            In Vietnam, the newbies are plunked down in a muddy base camp.  This quickly developes into a small unit film.  Specifically four blokes – Bill (John Jarrett), Harry (Graham Kennedy), Bung (John Hargreave), and Rogers (Bryan Baker).  Harry is the Pop of the unit.  He is a corporal who is a veteran.  He tells the men to “shoot the Charlies, not the civilians”.  When one asks how they will know the difference, Harry says “you’ll know when they shoot your bloody head off”. Ha ha!  But not a bad summary of the dilemma of identifying the enemy.  Speaking of the level of humor, there is a running gag involving Harry’s interchanges with the cook.  Typical is this gem:  “Be nice to me Cookie, or I’ll piss in your scrambled eggs”.  This actually gets a big laugh from his messmates.  And I suppose, the Australian audience.

            The constant rain causes grumbling, but it’s a mortar attack that results in the first deaths which clues the men to the fact that this war will not be as fun as they thought.  Keep the Foster’s coming.  An occasional mission generates some moments of brief combat and forces the men to whisper their soldier jibes.  There is a lot of soldier banter in this movie.  Most of it sounds natural.  These guys are chums and the camp is like a fraternity house.  Only with more beer.  There is less dysfunction than in a frat house as all the guys get along famously.  They shower together, ladies.  Just as I was noting the appearance of Bryan Baker’s ass, we are treated to the full Baker.  (In Australia, this is appropriate for post-fifteen year olds, but not British princes.)  We learn a lot about life in the Australian Army in Vietnam.   They play cards, go to brothels, get Dear John letters, and participate in a spider versus scorpion match with an American unit (followed by a brawl, naturally).  You know, the usual soldier in Vietnam stuff.   This leads up to the big set piece battle for a bridge.  Except it does not turn out to be that big.  Just big enough to get a main character killed in a laughable way and to set up the ironic withdrawal from the objective as a metaphor for the war tactics.  With that unaccomplished, it’s time to say “Hey, Cookie, fuck you” and take that Qantas back to the big barbie.

            “The Odd Angry Shot” is highly thought of by some.  Don’t count me in that group.  In truth, it is nothing special.  It comes off as a made-for-TV movie with the production values associated with that ilk.  The effects are low budget (most of the budget went for beer), but the script does not call for much because there is a disappointing lack of combat in it and what little there is is second rate with the silly deaths and gruesome wounds associated with a drive-in movie horror flick. The title is supposedly a reference to the random nature of mortality in war, but the truth is that every death is tragic because these guys seldom get put in harm’s way.  That may be realistic to the nature of the Vietnam War where contact with the enemy was rare, but it does not make for exciting cinema.  In fairness, the movie was not intended to be an action/adventure type like “Siege of Firebase Gloria” (also scripted by Nagle).  It is more a movie about the camaraderie of soldiers.  In that respect, it is satisfactory.  Other than the misstep of having all the characters getting along famously, the behavior is fairly close to soldier dynamics in Vietnam.  All of the men are likeable and there are no villains (even among the officers) and the enemy are faceless and atrocity-free.  The Viet Cong are not demonized, but then neither are the Aussies.  The Australians had a reputation for being nasty customers (e.g. ear-taking), but there is no reference to this infamy in the movie.  They are just regular joes going about their job and waiting to go home.  The only sop to the doves is Harry becoming a bit cynical towards the end.  He feels they will lose the war and no one will care when they return home.  He also proclaims the tired (but true) “the poor fight the wars” complaint.  That moment of philosophizing is swept away in a tide of bon homme towel- snapping dialogue and antics.  You do not come out of the movie thinking Australia made a big mistake being in Vietnam and these men were being used.  Instead, you leave thinking you might want to go to that fantasy war camp except for the fact that you could get killed.

            Still, the movie is not terrible like “Siege of Firebase Gloria” and the acting and dialogue is tolerable.  It is fun watching Bryan Brown one year away from the immensely better “Breaker Morant” and Graham Kennedy (who apparently was a big TV comedian at the time) is strong as Harry.  However, John Jarratt is a stiff as Bill.  The spider outacts him.  The movie has some humor, but it is best to do like the cast and crew – drink a lot of Fosters while watching it.  There are two things you will remember about the movie – the amount of beer consumed and the cool M-16s with grenade launchers they used (although I do not recall them ever actually firing a grenade).  Oh, and I suppose some will recall the full frontal shower scene.  Even Verhoeven in “Starship Troopers” was not willing to top this movie. 


GRADE  =  C-