Why We Fight
2005Director: Eugene Jarecki
Cast: John McCain, Chalmers Johnson, Charles Lewis
ou can say this for Eugene Jarecki: The kid’s got moxy.
Reaching documentary stardom—i.e., the Sundance Channel—with The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002), Jarecki’s latest is a 2005 Sundance prizewinner. Why We Fight is the most direct and decisive indictment of the politics that led to the current Iraq war yet presented onscreen. No comedy here, Michael Moore. No bull-rushing of congressmen. Just sober polemics. Straight to the gut. Efficient. Clean. America—“the new Rome,” as it is called in the film—is headed, like Rome, for collapse. Thank you, Mr. Bush.
No doubt, you have gleaned that Why We Fight contains, in its 99 minutes, a certain political bias; its ironic title is lifted from Frank Capra’s WWII propaganda series made at the request of General George C. Marshall to inspire national unity and enlistment. Yet to immediately note this bias is not to say that the opinions presented in Why We Fight are necessarily untrue. Indeed, given the authority of the documentary’s talking heads—which include Senator John McCain, Dan Rather, Gore Vidal, ex-CIA analyst Chalmers Johnson, and presidential son John S.D. Eisenhower—Why We Fights arguments sound frighteningly legit. Americans, they contend, have been engaged in some form of international combat at all times since President Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address—in which Ike famously decried America’s “military-industrial complex”—and that very same complex stokes our urge to continue fighting today.
The message here is a familiar one, rehashed through newsreel footage and expert interviews in a breathtaking exhibition of archival editing. It echoes accounts from Vietnam. It rings through news channels when they speak of the war or America’s desire for oil. What is unfamiliar is Jarecki’s vicious lunge at the fence-line of the documentary form. After all, Why We Fight is not one of D.A. Pennebaker’s sit-back-and-shoot documentaries; watching history write itself via Bob Dylan or James Carville, Pennebaker himself as abject an observer as the audience, his camera doing all the work. This is not Marcel Ophuls, drawing staggering connections between history and destiny. Indeed, Why We Fight is not even Michael Moore, who at least engages both sides of the political debate to add a reflective comic touch that ultimately makes both sides—and the viewer—feel absurd.
No, Why We Fight is different.
For starters, Jarecki forges narrative characters out of some of his interviewees: growing, changing, affected. Vietnam vet and ex-cop Wilton Sekzer is the film’s unquestionable hero: a father who lost his son in 9/11, who demanded vengeance, who sided with the president during the president’s call for war on Iraq, and who speaks—in the film’s finest moments—of a profound disillusionment when he realized his president had lied. As in Kissinger, Jarecki finds sound reason in an unlikely historical figure: President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who here comes off as the most insightful and forward-thinking president of the atomic age (every president since Truman, save Gerald Ford, makes an appearance in the film). Of course, Eisenhower is also Jarecki’s Shakespearean figure. He’s the ghost of the dead king, blue-tinted in scratchy newsreel footage, speaking with all the enlightened wisdom of a military man sent reluctantly to rule. Jarecki, in turn, demonstrates that all of Eisenhower’s forebodings regarding America’s military build-up have indeed come to pass.
Herein lies the film’s second novelty and most significant problem. Why We Fight displays a patent subjectivity unlike almost anything heretofore seen in a documentary feature. The experts in the film do not offer independent voices. Their words all arrive at the same point. They speak in unison. America is too much a military force for its own good, they say, and they point their fingers squarely at the icons of the war we have all come to know: Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Halliburton, gun shows, and WMDs (or lack thereof). All of this is fine as the pretense for a political debate. When Jarecki evokes the figure of a Republican president alongside the experts, all sending up the current Republican administration, he displays the greatest moxy of all—a neat package of dissent, too blatantly constructed to be real.
Why We Fight is slanted to the point of undercutting its own arguments. Perhaps this is not shocking, given the various, obvious agendas of most of the political debates currently waged in the American media. Perhaps, Jarecki is just adding a voice unheard otherwise—an admirable goal. But without the other side—or with only an Other Side simplistically represented as foolish, hypocritical, and evil—the film amounts to little more than a shout at the storm.
Sure, Jarecki has moxy. Why We Fight proves that moxy just ain’t enough.
By: Arthur Ryel-Lindsey
Published on: 2006-02-13