Sony // 2006 // 99 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Daniel MacDonald (Retired) // October 12th, 2006
It is nowhere written that the American Empire goes on forever.
The financial success of March of the Penguins, Super Size Me, and Fahrenheit 9/11 has led to a sort of renaissance for documentary filmmaking: studios now see this genre can be a gold mine when the right film finds its audience at the right time. Of course, not every documentary that finds its way to the Blockbuster shelves presents an incisive and balanced look at its subject matter, but on the whole, the recent increase in availability can arguably be called a harbinger for healthy debate in the public sphere. One of the higher-profile docs of recent years, Why We Fight garnered critical acclaim (although not unanimously) and modest financial rewards. Is it left-wing propaganda or a balanced look at the state of the nation?
In 1961, on the eve of his last day in office, then-president Dwight Eisenhower gave an eloquent farewell address on live television. The topic: the "military-industrial complex," a term Eisenhower coined to describe America's rapidly growing military sector. He warned that, unchecked, this military-industrial complex could so take hold that America would wage war for business reasons, not only when it was absolutely necessary, but when it was convenient.
Cut to today, when more money is allotted for military spending than any other discretionary portion of the U.S. budget, and America is embroiled in a war that many of its citizens don't understand, except that it is about "freedom."
Eugene Jarecki's film explores what led to the military's current dominance of the American budget, and more specifically what factors led to the decision to invade Iraq in 2004. Told through historical footage and interviews with a range of subjects, including John McCain, Gwynne Dyer, Dan Rather, Gore Vidal, Richard Perle, and Wilton Sekzer, the film presents a context for present-day debate. By charting how the United States' foreign policy has shifted since WWII, and what external factors led to internal decisions, it's made clear that no single administration is responsible for the rise of the military-industrial complex, but it is up to the American people to become informed and involved in deciding the country's future.
The most impressive aspect of Why We Fight, as far as it being a remarkably well-crafted documentary, is that it manages to present a great deal of historical background, necessary to understand the current thesis, without the use of narration. Jarecki (The Trials of Henry Kissinger) uses his subjects' commentary and striking, well-placed imagery to inform the viewer without ever presenting his own opinion or telling the viewer what to think. It is quite a dramatic departure from the films of populist documentarian Michael Moore, whose pictures can sometimes seem to be as much about him as a crusader as they are about his subject. Not that there is anything wrong with that style per se -- on the contrary, Moore has found a way to connect with audiences that is unprecedented in the documentary world and I have enjoyed his films. However, with Why We Fight, there is a real sense of a filmmaker trying to find an answer to the titular question, not of one who already "knows" the answer and is trying to sway opinion. We never even see Jarecki in the picture -- information is the star of the show.
It's clearly a difficult question, "Why do we fight?," and one with complex, multi-faceted answers. Jarecki takes about as balanced an approach as one could reasonably do, short of landing interviews with George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, or any other key White House players (although I'm sure he tried to do so). Interview subjects range across the political spectrum from policy-shaper Richard Perle to moderate Republican Senator John McCain to controversial writer Gore Vidal, and all opinions are treated with respect.
A point is made of blaming neither Republican nor Democrat administrations for the rise of the military-industrial complex. Nixon is presented beside Kennedy, Clinton beside Bush, and all have a degree of culpability for the increasing buildup of standing military power. The film purports that the rise of the military-industrial complex is not due to any one president or ideology; instead, it was a slow creep, with decisions that seemed reasonable and measured at the time leading to unforeseen consequences. That's what makes it so scary.
In fact, the elected officials, regardless of stripe, are the people Jarecki believes can put a stop to this growing problem. He argues that think tanks and corporations are having far too much sway with the formation of foreign policy, and Congress needs to re-learn how to say no. Not an easy task, though: the B2 Bomber (There is no B2 Bomber -- a little Wag The Dog humor there ...), for example, has parts manufactured in nearly every state, so that it is in the best interest of every senator to approve the building of more. Not so simple to say, "Do we really need another bomber, instead of building a school?" when you're talking about the livelihood of your constituents. The military-industrial complex has become such a behemoth that the United States spends more on its military than the rest of for the world combined, and that means a lot of jobs for Americans.
Some really strong framing devices are used to structure the narrative. We meet the two stealth bomber pilots who dropped the first bombs on Baghdad in the current Iraq war, and hear a little bit of their tale at a time, the pilots describing what the weather conditions were like, what was going through their head, and so on. Each segment focusing on the pilots is punctuated by television coverage showing the city waiting for the inevitable onslaught, until it finally happens.
Perhaps the most affecting element is Vietnam veteran and former NYPD Officer Wilton Sekzer, who lost his son with the collapse of the World Trade Center. He chronicles his emotional mindset from the moment he first saw the burning towers, to his desire for vengeance, to his eventual disillusionment with the current administration. It's a personal and human counterpoint to the hard facts presented elsewhere in the picture.
Sony Pictures has provided a fine DVD here. The film contains footage from lots of different sources, all of which is presented in its original aspect ratio; there are plenty of shots windowboxed within the anamorphically-enhanced 1.78:1 frame. Picture quality is very good for the most part, although some of the older stock footage features prominent scratches, dirt, and the like. That said, this is probably the best most of this footage has looked in some time. The sound is clear and sharp, mostly confined to the front speakers with the rear channels coming to life only occasionally with music and the occasional jet or bullet flying by.
The special features do a good job of adding to the viewer's experience of the film. There are a number of extended scenes, all of which are interesting and worthwhile, but have been excised with good reason. The "Extended Character Featurettes" provide background on some of the key speakers in the picture, and the Q&A section presents Jarecki answering common post-screening questions -- most enlightening here are the questions he is asked after screening the film for a group of high-school students, who seem to have a fairly polarized view of the movie's thesis. The best of the bunch is the filmmaker commentary with the director and Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson: the two have lots to say and provide vital background information that can really create a deeper understanding of both sides of the argument.
Some critics have pointed out that the film's point is pretty much made in the first five minutes, and the rest is just texture. If you get it right away, some of the film may seem redundant.
To a certain degree, similar to the recent Al Gore global warming tome An Inconvenient Truth, this picture may be preaching to the choir; if you're not already disposed to think critically about current White House policies, you're probably not going to check this film out. Those without an open mind need not apply. A shame, since, as I've said, I think it's actually a pretty balanced presentation, but that's the way it goes. I highly recommend you give it a try, regardless of your political affiliation.
Not guilty -- the accused is free to continue with its peaceful protest.
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Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2006 Nominee
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Extra Scenes
* Extended Character Featurettes
* Filmmaker TV Appearances: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Charlie Rose
* Audience Q&A with Filmmaker
* Filmmaker Commentary with Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson
* Theatrical Trailer
* Official Site