Why Film Critics Fight

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize last year at Sundance, Eugene Jarecki's documentary analysis of our imperial war machine is considerably more sober and self-contained than Michael Moore's. Jarecki, best known for The Trials of Henry Kissinger, juxtaposes a number of talking heads—smug members of the policy elite, assorted dissidents, a recent enlistee, and a Viet vet ex-cop whose son died in the World Trade Center—to give U.S. militarism a human face. Just as Henry Kissinger appeared as a surprise force for reason in The Power of Nightmares, Dwight D. Eisenhower emerges here as the most enlightened of post-World War II American presidents—at least in his (oft repeated) warning regarding our "military-industrial complex." These days, political scientist Chalmers Johnson notes, the complex is so ubiquitous as to be invisible. As retired air force colonel Karen Kwiatkowski observes, "We elected a defense contractor as vice-president." By contrast, Senator John McCain is shown talking from both sides of his mouth and excitedly interrupting his interview to take Dick Cheney's call. Much of this is familiar stuff—which is to say, historically grounded. The title deliberately echoes the World War II propaganda films made by Frank Capra. Anyone who lived through the Vietnam War is familiar with the litany of official lies—although it's always breathtaking to see footage of Cheney and Rumsfeld insisting on the existence of Iraqi WMDs. Moreover, generally uncompromising and simple enough for TV (or at least the BBC, which produced it), Jarecki's film forcefully argues that the much abused word freedom cannot paper over the conflicts between capitalism and democracy. (Hoberman)

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The glut of political documentaries since the dawn of the Bush II era can effectively be grouped into two categories. There are those, like Errol Morris' The Fog of Warand Adam Curtis' The Power of Nightmares, that calmly and broad-mindedly assess both the contemporary state of U.S. foreign policy and how in God's name we got ourselves here. Then there are those like Fahrenheit 9/11 and the recent Gunner Palace that mock, scorn, strut about as if the filmmakers know exactly what is needed to cure our ailing world and, ultimately, preach so loudly to the choir that the choir may long for noise-canceling headphones. Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight is a case of the latter, so stealthily disguised as the former that it managed to bamboozle the documentary jury at last year's Sundance Film Festival into awarding it the Grand Jury Prize. Borrowing its title from the Frank Capra-directed series of World War II government propaganda films, and lifting its coolly detached style (and faux–Philip Glass music) from Morris, this overview of the rise and rise of the American military-industrial complex makes a series of by-now-familiar suppositions and conjecture. That we bombed Hiroshima not because we had to, but because we wanted to. That the Vietnam War only came to an end because white, middle-class suburban kids started getting drafted. That the recent wars in the Middle East are part of a nefarious neo-conservative plan for global domination for which the 9/11 attacks merely provided a convenient excuse. I'm not saying I disagree with any of what Jarecki has to say, but rather with the manipulative way, as in his earlier The Trials of Henry Kissinger, he goes about saying it: The glib juxtaposition of Don Ho singing "Tiny Bubbles" over footage of an army contractor trade show; the self-serving mini-portrait of 23-year-old army recruit William Solomon, used to affirm Jarecki's conviction that nobody but the socially dysfunctional and/or destitute would voluntarily join the U.S. military; and the inclusion of right-wingers William Kristol and Richard Perle less for balance than for comic relief. There may not be two equal sides to every argument, but in giving such little credence to those who might oppose him, Jarecki makes us wonder what exactly it is he's so afraid of. (Foundas)



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