Documentaries like Eugene Jarecki's Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning "Why We Fight" put me in two frames of mind. On the one hand, its staid and steady by-the-PBS-book blend of talking heads, archival footage, and recent news clips makes one ponder the necessity of a theatrical release. On the other, its topicality asserts art houses a better choice than TV broadcast, which -- with the multitudinous options noisily competing for attention -- might drown out rather than bring the film's pressing issues into focus. Political documentaries, as evidenced by their recent popularization in the lead up to the 2004 presidential election, can now serve a new function: responding to the public desire for a more deliberate means of news-gathering.
What Jarecki here wants us to hone in on are the complicated and far less honorable reasons we go to war. To do this, he poses the question -- "What are we fighting for?" -- and contrasts simplistic doing-Dubya-proud answers such as "Freedom" and "Ideals" given in on-the-street interviews by children and adults alike against more variegated responses from experts and politicians on both sides of the fence. Using Dwight D. Eisenhower's farewell address -- where the phrase "military industrial complex" first found expression -- as a starting point, the director didactically attempts a historical tracing from World War II and Vietnam through the current situation in Iraq.
But for all its admirable intentions, "Why We Fight" feels late in coming to the political doc party. The main thrust of Jarecki's thesis -- that the reasons we wage war tend to be more financial than ideological -- is well taken, but does it tell the conscientious liberal anything he or she doesn't know? Provide new intelligence to those already attentive to the alternative press, or keyed into the slyly suggestive wavelengths of Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show," the baldly satirical headlines of The Onion? Observations regarding, for example, Halliburton -- where Dick Cheney formerly presided as CEO -- and its numerous contracts in Iraq and elsewhere are presented as revelations, but that blatant conflict of interest along with broader insinuations of American economic imperialism are exasperatingly well-known to those paying attention.
This then signals a clear difference in Jarecki's project and his intended audience. Positioning itself as the anti-"Fahrenheit 9/11" with an often plodding and pedantic even-handedness, and a decision on the director's part to remain visually and aurally uninvolved, the two movies nonetheless intersect in important ways. Each locates its emotional center in a surprisingly eloquent individual -- Lila Lipscomb in "Fahrenheit" and Wilton Sekzer in "Why We Fight" -- mourning a child's death. Formerly fervent war supporters, Lipscomb loses her son in Iraq and Vietnam vet Sekzer in Twin Tower 1 on September 11th, and the respective documentaries intimately detail the parent's emotional transition from belief in to betrayal by the Bush administration.
The showcasing of these near-identical trajectories conveys a desire to similarly affect audiences, to sway those red-hearted souls who believe in the inherent rightness of our military endeavors towards a bluer-than-blood way of seeing. Though "Fahrenheit" remains a far more engaging and complexly essayistic documentary, Michael Moore's emphatic preaching to the converted understandably turned many off. Contrastingly, Jarecki goes for a subdued educational approach and reaches out to those not yet on his side. Even the ambiguously aligned title seems strategically chosen to lure in a wider audience than the liberal niche crowd. In extending himself in such a way to include others, Jarecki's is a vital effort -- but it remains to be seen whether even such measured tactics as his can change hearts and minds.
Unfortunately, unlike "Fahrenheit 911" or even the slap-dashed direct-to-DVD Robert Greenwald docs "Outfoxed" and "Uncovered," "Why We Fight" doesn't carry the same imperative charge. The then-impending 2004 election enlivened exhibition spaces -- whether the movie theater or MoveOn.org house party -- with an unspoken predication: You can make a difference via a vote to change the administration. Jarecki's is likewise a call to action, and yet, in presenting a vast system of decades-long dealings, "Why We Fight" instills one with a sense of powerlessness rather than renewed activism.
After all, what can one person do in the face of such an enormous entity as the "military-industrial complex" he describes? Where can the individual assert his/her agency if democracy can't coexist -- the film's boldest implication -- alongside rampant corporate capitalism? If, as author Gore Vidal observes in an interview, "No one remembers anything before Monday morning," this documentary's impact might best be measured by asking if anyone actually remembers it in a few months time.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and maintains the blog artflickchick.]
Take 2 by Michael Joshua Rowin
"What Michael Moore does in a film is not what I do," director Eugene Jarecki stated in a recent Time Out New York interview. Oh, really? In "Why We Fight" Jarecki knows well enough to lay off authorial insertion, but that's only a conspicuous counter-Moore decision diverting attention away from the film's ordinary, insidious Moorean manipulations, now so absorbed into mainstream documentary as to go nearly unnoticed.
Corrupting his own insightful thesis on the ubiquitous political influence of the military-industrial complex like a worm burrowing through an apple, Jarecki panders to potential human-interest soft spots, spending unnecessary time with both a confused young man who enlists in the army and a disillusioned father of a 9/11 victim. Remaining woefully undeveloped and having little connection to the macroscopic sweep of the military-industrial complex, these asides do worse than make the film lose focus: They undermine a rational, well-researched argument with emotional sensationalism. Why documentary filmmakers resort to such tactics I'll never understand--they betray the audience, who the director cynically treats as either too stupid for politics or too susceptible to calculation.
"Why We Fight" also follows "Bowling for Columbine" and "Fahrenheit 9/11" in its regrettable misuse of music--you don't have to be a humorless Godardian to recognize the film's inoculating sound/image effects. To show the results of militarism, Jarecki goes to anti-war montage cliches: ominous, tinkling piano chords accompany the build-up to the Iraq War, while lugubrious tones swell to images of American air-strike victims. Johnny Cash's version of "Hurt" painfully--although not as much as Moore's employment of "What a Wonderful World" in "Columbine"--takes us through the wreckage. In the end, it's all too embarrassing. Jarecki's polemic on the American war machine needs to be heard by the American public, but his documentary strategies preclude conversation and instill unthinking partisanship as much as any Fox News program.
Take 3 By Michael Koresky
What are we asking for from populist political documentaries? For every claim of trenchant observation, there's an equally resounding criticism of "preaching to the choir." Effective agitprop like "Fahrenheit 9/11" wears its "There's no business like show business" sticker proudly on its sleeve, while Eugene Jarecki's "Why We Fight" purports to be something a little more "substantial," with its Eisenhower warning speech about the growing military-industrial complex as its Rosetta stone. Yet once it gets past this revealing footage and narrative's avowed "point of origin," Jarecki's film follows the same basic Bush-era doc template as Moore's film, moving from that old devil Halliburton to individual parental grief to politicians lying through their teeth.
What made "Fahrenheit" so exhilarating was it pre-election rallying war cry, the sense you got marching out of that packed multiplex theater that a change was gonna come, that we could help make that change, and the knowledge that the same feeling was coming over a group of people in small suburban movie houses all over the country. Coming as it does now in January 2006, at a moment when the Bush administration has reached an all-time low (due not just to Iraq but countless financial and public-privacy scandals), "Why We Fight" seems less a call to arms than a defeatist "mourning-in-America" TV special.
As a piece of spliced-footage filmmaking, it's smooth and efficient, if never revelatory. Part of me is always happy to see documentaries like these reaching wide-ish audiences ("Why We Fight" has the chance to do so), so I remain hopeful that Jarecki's film will open a few people's eyes to the connections between a government's financial stability to weapons-manufacturing and wartime profiteering. Is it persuasive to those who don't already know this stuff? Should we penalize it for potentially not being so? It's the new, age-old documentary question, but I'm willing to give "Why We Fight" the benefit of the doubt. Jarecki's 2002 "The Trials of Henry Kissinger" was a true eye-opener, a masterful distillation of all of this film's easy equations down into one power-mad individual's effect on America's continuing evolution into the late 20th-century behemoth that "Why We Fight" bemoans. See "Kissinger" to put Jarecki's theory into practice.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well as the managing editor of the Criterion Collection and contributor to Film Comment