The film depicts the life of Robert McNamara, United States Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968, through the use of archival footage, White House recordings, and most prominently an interview with McNamara himself at the age of 85. The subject matter spans McNamara's work as one of the "Whiz Kids" during World War II and as an executive at the Ford Motor Company to his involvement in the Vietnam War under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
The film is structured around eleven lessons, which McNamara may or may not agree with. They are:
1. Empathize with your enemy.
2. Rationality will not save us.
3. There's something beyond one's self.
4. Maximize efficiency.
5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war.
6. Get the data.
7. Belief and seeing are both often wrong.
8. Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning.
9. In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.
10. Never say never.
11. You can't change human nature.