Film Review ***..: Convincing Political Journalism
Director Jarecki Empowers Righteous Anger
By Beckett W. Sterner
Why We Fight
Directed by Eugene Jarecki
Written by Eugene Jarecki
The recent spate of movies as political journalism had a rough start with Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11”. Mixing too little reality with his shots of partisanship, Moore’s production veered dangerously close to a giant emotive shout, “Yay for the left!” Since then, any documentary that aims to make a point about American politics is automatically tainted as biased. Remarkably, “Why We Fight” achieves enough substance, depth, and sensitivity to legitimize the hope that good journalism can excel on the silver screen.
One of the biggest problems a documentary like “Why We Fight” or “9/11” faces is credibility. In print, whether it’s The Weekly Standard, The Nation, or The New York Times, any individual writer will piggyback on the reputation of the paper and its editing process. When wading into such hot-button, often irrational debates like the war on terror, the credibility of an argument — and every news story is an argument — rests on how much we trust the process that created it. Why you should believe director and writer Eugene Jarecki is rests mainly on two reasons: who he is, and the substance of his argument.
Jarecki is largely unknown to the public except for a previous, well-received documentary (“The Trials of Henry Kissinger”, 2002). I won’t try to evaluate his background here, except to note that he talks like the independent, open-minded person for whom you’d hope. Speaking with the BBC about a source in the documentary, he says, “Is she right? I don’t really look for that. I look for people who say things that are arresting, who you may not necessarily agree with, but who you also can’t just dismiss.” To read the rest of the interview, go to http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/documentaries/storyville/eugene-jarecki.shtml.
As for the substance, Jarecki ties into a coherent narrative an impressive set of perspectives, key facts, and historical context. The movie features an NYPD cop who lost a son in 9/11, neoconservative leader William Kristol, a disaffected Pentagon analyst, the pilots who fired the first salvo in the Iraq war, several former government military experts, and more. Perhaps most impressively, Jarecki overcomes the tendency to ignore history and puts America’s militaristic leanings in the context of the industrialization of the military during World War II. He begins the film with Dwight Eisenhower’s ominous warning against the growing “military-industrial complex.”
Which brings me to the content of the movie — an attempt to disentangle the answer to why we fight from the smoke and mirrors of so many vested interests. It is here that I must enter my major caveat about this film, which is that vested interests can still have good arguments backing them up, and “Why We Fight” fails to convincingly engage with all of the substance of its opposing thesis. At some level, this is unfair because it is impossible to do any complicated topic full justice in 98 minutes, and Jarecki covers more than I expected possible.
Nonetheless, he paints a convincing portrait of how hidden, back-room deals turn the government into an oligarchy of elite interests — politicians make America the world’s overwhelming military power, they outsource production to private industry, private industry splurges on congressmen, and Congress asks no questions when the president goes to war. Jarecki does a subtler job of dealing with reality’s complexities than my one-liner above, but he brings one point home clearly: it is simply false to claim that America only goes to war for freedom and democracy. (If you scoff at the idea that America fights only for its ideals, then it’s worth asking why about 120 of the 150 regular people Jarecki interviewed said we fought for “freedom.”) His thesis is hardly novel, but what matters is how he argues his point, and in that “Why We Fight” excels.
What you will perhaps find most frustrating about this movie is that it is primarily a negation, ripping the veil off the ugly truth of why America really goes to war. On the surface, “Why We Fight” offers no empowerment, no alternative answer to what exists now. In looking for an intellectual answer, however, one would miss what the film does offer: the empowerment of righteous anger. In challenging us to push more firmly for the truth, Jarecki has set the bar high, and I hope that others will raise it still higher.