What an anti-climax. Why We Fight premiered exactly a year ago at the Sundance Film festival, walked off with the festival's Documentary Grand Prize (over audience favorites The Aristocrats and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), and was soon after snatched up by Sony's indie arm for domestic distribution. Think about how different the world looked in January of 2005: this was pre-Cindy Sheehan; pre-Valerie Plane/Judy Miller/Scooter Libby; pre-Katrina. The whole WMD charade had already been pretty much debunked, but the Bush administration didn't seem to be losing any collective sleep over ...well, much of anything. The time was ripe, last winter, for the Republican establishment to get hit with a classy, even-handed counter-point. So it's baffling that SPC bought Eugene Jarecki's film – the classiest, most even-handed contrapuntal maneuver in years – only to wait this long to release it. If it had hit screens last winter, Why We Fight would have at least felt a half-step ahead of the zeitgeist; this winter, it actually feels somewhat unnecessary.
Made-for-TV austere, Why We Fight is a solid, classy film, but its Frontline-esque obsession with"fairness" (the polar opposite of Fox News' cocksure "Fair and Balanced" pretense) prevents Jarecki from producing anything particularly intellectually devastating. The title is a take-off on a series of propaganda films produced during world war II by Frank Capra. Predictably gung-ho and simplistic in their Americana, there's nothing inherently dangerous about the films themselves – until, as is inevitable, they're put to the service of historical revisionism. There's been much semantic debate over the past few years as to whether or not one can "support our troops" without supporting this war, or any war. The original Why We Fight is particularly noteworthy for the way it inextricably ties patriotism to a child-like acceptance of the party line. It seeks to soothe an entire society with simple answers, and the whole enterprise holds remarkable faith in our collective fear of authority. If this sounds familiar, well, it should: the Bush administration's all or nothing, "with us or against us" policy of ideological exclusion is essentially, borrowed from the guy who directed It's a Wonderful Life.
There's no question that Capra's films had their intended effect of building blind morale. By directly referencing Capra's work in both his title and his first act, Jarecki announces his desire to revisit that realm of rhetoric. The implication from the get go is that the Bush administration can't get away with witholding information, or outright deception, under the guise of a Capraesque philosophy of social control. In other words, the question "Why we fight" can't be satisfied with a single stream of discourse; like everything else in our hyper-accelerated culture, the threads of argument are necessarily fragmented. That's the philosophy; methodologically, that fragmentation of argument is strangely dull, with each profound or provocative idea balanced with a banality.
The dichotomy is frustrating, but maybe not in the way it's supposed to be. On one hand, the film posits the war in Iraq as the culmination of a revenge fantasy fifty years in the making (following threads similar to those running through Adam Curtis' The Power of Nightmares), and only finally activated by 9/11's David-takes-down-Goliath global humiliation. Jarecki gets most of his story arc from Wilton Sekzer, a retired New York City police officer and Vietnam vet who lost a son on 9/11. Believing the Bush administration's original lie that Sadaam Hussein was in whatever way responsible for the World Trade Center attacks, Sekzer went through a maze of red tape to have his son's name emblazoned on a bomb. He was then sent pictures of the missile, and information on the damage it wrought, only to learn months later, along with everyone else, that Iraq's ties to the events of September 11 were tenuous at best. Sekzer's emotional roller coaster – from grief, to bloodlust, to anger, remorse and self doubt, and all in 90 minutes! – is the closest thing Jarecki has to a traditional narrative at his disposal. If this sounds like an emotionally manipulative way to structure a documentary, that's only because it is.
But Jarecki's got to do something to make the ladies cry, because most of his material is brittle, late-night PBS stuff. He reminds us early and often of Ike Eisenhower's "farewell speech", in which the outgoing president and WWII commander warned of the dangers of slipping, as a nation, into a "permanent war economy" and coined the term "military industrial complex". It's simple economics, and the fact that Dick Cheney is in bed with Halliburton is the least of it. After all, there's not a state in the union that doesn't house military jobs. On some level, the government has a responsibility to continually manufacture global conflict in order to keep these people employed. What would you prefer – a little bit of death and destruction on far-flung foreign shores, or a massive domestic economic crisis? It's because we didn't listen to Ol' Ike, Jarecki oversimplifies, that we don't really have a choice.
In some ways it seems productive to talk about Fight alongside, Curtis' Nightmares, a three-part BBC documentary which caused a mini-sensation at last year's Tribeca Film Festival. The two could be considered neat complements – at the very least, Nightmares could be subtitled, Why They Hate Us. The Tribeca buzz largely stemmed from noise made by the heavily leftist local weeklies, who gleefully branded Nightmares "too scandalous for American audiences" – and whilst the film certainly has its share of incendiary charges to level at everyone from Ronald Reagan to the Ronettes, I can think of another reason why Curtis might have had little luck finding backers for U.S. distribution. As it's been packacked, with all three episodes tacked together with zero attempt at integration, Nightmares amounts to three hours of unmatched didacticism; it's clearly not meant to be ingested full-force in one sitting. It's a grab-bag barrage of imag ery, a densely-knotted and uneven hodgepodge of news footage, interviews (many of them shot seat-of-the-pants, camcorder-on-shoulder style with key figures clearly hesitant to tell what they know), and scads of stock footage.Why We Fight plays like a lullaby in contrast, and put side-by-side, it clearly emerges as the superior film, inferior argument intact. Where Curtis assaults you with ominous voice over and machine gun montage, Jarecki's imagery is elegantly composed and deliberately cut. I suppose your results might vary, but I'm the kind of girl who like to be sweet-talked. At the very least, Jarecki knows how to seduce.
Though unswayed by Jarecki's talking heads and dialectical policies of persuasion, weeks after seeing the film I kept mentally returning to a few of Fight's key images, with a trip to an Iraqi morgue being particularly difficult to shake. Jarecki’s guide opens a door, and the camera immediately encounters a pile of bodies, cartoonishly decomposed and tangled like black and blue linguine. It’s terribly disturbing, and Jarecki's camera doesn't flinch: in fact, he grazes the contents of the space, and then moves in. It takes a moment for the brain to register exactly what we're seeing – it's all ashen blue skin melted to just past the point of recognizable humanity – and Jarecki holds the shot a few moments longer. It seems significant that the most powerful moment of this somber, serious film works its magic without words. If your stomach doesn't roll a bit at the close of the scene, then no amount of spoken dogma is gonna get you.