On one hand, the proliferation of politically engaged documentaries in the past several years makes a thrilling response to the often shallow, superficial reportage of television news.
But the rise of countercultural docs like The Corporation, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and now Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight also feels like further evidence of the enormous political gulf that separates Americans. The kind of people who disagree with Why We Fight's grim prognosis -- of an America where politicians, think tanks and corporations work in mutually advantageous harmony to create a vast standing army and a bellicose foreign policy -- will not drop by the local art house to have their presuppositions tested. Why We Fight shows clear merit in these convoluted, double-talking times, but thanks to the polarization of the American public, it's probably damned to preach to the choir.
Why We Fight takes a grim, lucid and occasionally specious survey of American foreign policy post-World War II. The film falls into a familiar talking-head rhythm, centered on interviews with CIA and Department of Defense advisers, career military officers, think tank operatives and neoconservatives such as Richard Perle. Most of their pronouncements about the danger of America's nonstop militarization will send a shudder down any sensible person's back, especially when some liken the hubris and aggression of George Bush's "imperial" presidency to Rome before the fall.
Retired Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, for instance, doesn't hide her disgust for the collusion she observed at the Pentagon between the Bush administration and think tanks that helped feed the administration sound bites and a shaky rationale for the Iraq War.
Why We Fight argues, often quite convincingly, that an America once concerned with real threats from the Nazis has become a support system for the same kind of military industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned the country about in his parting address. Liberty and justice fall in the name of unchecked power and economic dominance.
Why We Fight's most convincing case against America's loss of a moral imperative with each new war from Vietnam to Iraq comes from former military men and women. The likes of Eisenhower, Kwiatkowski and Sen. John McCain know the ugly reality of war firsthand, unlike the paper tigers who currently goad the country to fight.
But those cautionary tales are too often neutralized by director Jarecki's sudden insertion of campy '50s footage and surveys of the American landscape focused on flag-waving yokels, bouffants and mullets, air shows and all-you-can-eat buffets. It's a vision of the nation only a French intellectual could love. Instead of lightening the mood, those bits of comic business make you question the ethics of a filmmaker essentially cracking jokes at a funeral. It's a pity Jarecki feels the need to undercut his film's snowballing horror with such condescension.
Jarecki stands on firmer ground when he intersperses his panel of experts with reoccurring stories centered on ordinary Americans. One of them concerns a gruff, seasoned New York City policeman with a heartbreaking story about a son who died in the Sept. 11 tragedy. A more subtly wrenching portrait concerns a lost, immature, parentless 23-year-old who falls under the spell of an Army recruiter and seems to be looking for a new protector and parent in the U.S. military.
Why We Fight suggests that those two men are, essentially, America, entrusting its well-being to an administration with little accountability or any apparent governing conscience. Meanwhile, the war machine keeps raging on, making companies like Halliburton and leaders like Dick Cheney rich ("We elected a defense contractor as vice president," scoffs Kwiatkowski). Its furious din drowns out the sounds of protest and the concerns of people who have put their humble faith in the benevolence and righteousness of their elected officials, and suffer for it.