On the evening of January 19, 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke from the Oval Office for the last time as president. In his farewell address he warned of a “military-industrial complex” that was taking form and if not controlled could threaten democracy as we know it. At the time his remarks may have fallen on deaf ears, but forty-five years later Eisenhower’s premonition has unfortunately come true.
While researching his last film, “The Trials of Henry Kissinger,” Eugene Jarecki stumbled upon Eisenhower’s speech and thought; “this cries out for a movie.” Once “Trials” was completed Jarecki quickly began work on his next film, and using Eisenhower’s phrase as a guide, investigates America’s obsession with war. But what Jarecki didn’t know was while he was examining war the powers-that-be were planning one.
“Why We Fight” (taken from Frank Capra‘s WWII propaganda films) is a gripping documentary that peels away our preconceived notions on why we go to war to reveal the policy makers, defense contractors and think tanks who’ve created an ever-growing war machine in America for the last fifty years. Along with talking to military and beltway insiders, Jarecki also looks at the people affected by war. The most gripping is Wilton Sekzer, a grieving father who lost his son on 9/11. Throughout the film Jarecki returns to Wilton as he tries to find some way to memorialize his son, even going as far as asking the military to write his son’s name on a bomb intended to be dropped during the Iraq war. But when the Bush administration admits there was no connection between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks, Wilton must rethink his pro-war stance.
Regardless what your political views are, with its masterful editing and chilling score, “Why We Fight” (awarded the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize one year ago) is a testament to the art of non-fiction. Recently indieWIRE contributor Jason Guerrasio talked to Jarecki about the film and why he believes democracy still has a chance. Sony Pictures Classics opens the film in NY and LA Friday and it goes wide in February.
IndieWIRE: What did you find so moving about Eisenhower’s farewell address?
Eugene Jarecki: He did what I think no other president in America has done before or since, which is he told the truth to the American public about a subject of incredible importance to all of us. He did so on his last night in office and I just thought it was such a remarkable phrase this “military-industrial complex” that he warned us about. Coming from a general, a hero of World War II, a two-term Republican president, it just said to me there must be a movie in that.
iW: In fact, to show how much Eisenhower was on the ball, his original wording was “military-industrial-congressional complex.”
EJ: I learned that. For the film we interviewed the son of Dwight Eisenhower, John Eisenhower, who’s a military scholar and a historian and Dwight Eisenhower’s granddaughter, Susan. They do reveal the word “congressional” had been in the warning [it would be dropped by the final draft] because Eisenhower was keenly aware of the crucial role played by congress in making it possible for the unholy alliance between the military and industry to have the kind of impact on our policy making that he feared it would have.
At a time where we’re riddled with scandals in the congress about lobbyists and special interest groups and their impact on policy making, I think Dwight Eisenhower really walks among us as a prophet for our time. He’s a remarkable figure that I learned a great deal about in making the film and I really want to share what I’ve learned with people who may not know that much about him.
iW: Having shown the film at festivals, does it seem audiences are looking at the system and not creating heroes and villains?
EJ: I’ve been really impressed showing this film to audiences so far. Maybe it’s a function of the time we’re in, but people are looking more deeply than I’ve noticed them doing before. I think 9/11 and the war on terror and now the Iraq war have the country really reeling in trying to understand the world in which we live. There’s a crisis of trust in the media so the public doesn’t quite know where to get explanations for the complexity we face, so audiences are looking to documentaries, maybe like mine, for those kinds of answers, or at least a start to the conversation.
iW: The film comes out at an interesting time. Congress has begun to start asking questions about the war. Public opinion is mixed. It’s almost like the film is ripped from the headlines.
EJ: In a sense I think it is ripped from the headlines. That’s probably a sad statement about America because the film was finished a year ago and the fact that little has changed to do anything than make the points of the movie even stronger is a very sad statement. People have asked me if I’ve made any changes since a year ago when the film won Sundance and I have to say no, very little about the film needed to be changed. As a macabre side note, the one thing I had to do was to update the casualty figures.
iW: The politicians you spoke with were very candid in their remarks, did you get the feeling they were getting something of their chests?
EJ: I think that you’re probably right. I think it is a time where people are doing a lot of soul searching and that includes the powerful. So in many ways the people we spoke to in Washington might have felt that this film represented a kind of break for them from the usual sound bite punditry that they get subjected to and that they could really think more deeply.
iW: Did you have an idea of how you wanted the tone of the film to be early on, or was that developed in post?
EJ: Every time I start a movie I’m struck by how clueless I think I am. I wish I had a template I could use but I don’t and in this movie I didn’t know if it would be narrated, we started making it before the war in Iraq even happened so I was making a highly theoretical film, a talking heads movie about war. I didn’t know a war would happen, of course none of us knew that it was inevitable and that it was almost pre-scripted, and so when the war happened all of the sudden it caused the movie to have to adapt, to think on its feet, it had to become about a real war not just about war per se and as soon as that happened it changed the storytelling style.
iW: But you bring up something interesting. When our country goes to war we believe it’s because it’s the last resort to a conflict, what we’ve learned through your film is that for some time they’ve been inevitable and pre-scripted. How did you feel when you discovered this?
EJ: That’s an interesting question. I pride myself as a moviemaker on democracy. I want my work to be reflective of the same democratic values that I want to see in my society and in the context of making the film what I discovered was that those in power do not respect democracy enough to have trusted the democratic process to decide to bring us to war or not. They didn’t tell congress what they should have, they didn’t respect intelligence procedures for gathering proper information about another country, they lied to the American people at times when necessary to create a fictitious connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 in order to justify the notion of a war in Iraq, and they never mentioned to the public, and I guess this is where the lie comes in, that they had long standing desires to address Saddam Hussein and saw 9/11 as an instrumental moment for attending to those pre-existing plans. When you discover that those you’re studying do not respect democracy as you would hope they would it emboldens our commitment to democratic processes in making the film. It emboldens my desire to let people talk, to trust that if they talk and if the public is allowed to hear them in full then the public can come to the kind of well considered decisions that a democracy is supposed to come to rather than those faulty decisions as we’ve now tragically learned that are arrived at when a government acts autocratically, tyrannically.
iW: One of the most eye-opening documentaries I saw in ’05 was “The Power of Nightmares,” and in it fear plays a major role in our country accepting war. Do you agree?
EJ: There’s no question. The Iraq war and its claim about weapons of mass destruction is not the first American war where some “threat” is the reason we go to war. In Vietnam the Gulf of Tonkin was as illusionary a claim for war as the weapons of mass destruction. What’s useful of a moment of fear is it can galvanize public support for going to war. The American people rarely want to go to war. World War II is a classic example where until Pearl Harbor the United States was overwhelmingly opposed to entering the war in Europe. It didn’t matter that Jews and Gypsies and Chinese and Ethiopians were dying across the globe, there was a resistance, an isolationism in America that said that’s not our business. But that’s an old tradition in America and it has its defensible parts as well as its questionable parts. But I think at the end of the day fear is the fuel that makes the engine of militarism run and it is a fuel that’s easy to generate for leaders when they have a real incident in particular like 9/11 and they can hijack our fears. Because fear is not a precise impulse, unfortunately it was part of the process of getting this country into a misbegotten war.
iW: Have we failed at being what Eisenhower called “alert and knowledgeable citizenry”?
EJ: I don’t think we failed to do anything, I think the story is not yet over. I think everyone has to remember this is a work in progress and our founding fathers of this country understood that. If you remember while they were writing the constitution they were also writing sort of the footnotes to the constitution in the federalist papers. They were saying this is what we’re trying to do and it’s a work in progress and democracy itself is a permanent work in progress for the world, adapting to circumstances and trying to protect the rights of people. So if America now feels that we’ve been kind of sleeping under a rock and didn’t notice how our own society was shifting toward a kind of runaway corporatism, a runaway militarism, well it’s time to wake up, it’s not over, it’s just a moment. We may have lost the battle to stop the last war but that’s all we lost and what we now have to do as a people is remind those in Washington that they serve at our pleasure and it is we who will move the needle of this society. Americans have been taught in a certain way to think that none of us matter, well we do matter and I think that’s going to become clear as people start to voice more and more clearly not only their opposition to this war but also their opposition to any policies coming out of Washington that are not taken into account the long term ideas of America and the world we so influence.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Jason Guerrasio writes the Production Report column for indieWIRE and contributes regularly to Premiere, Filmmaker Magazine, MovieMaker and Time Out.