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Why We Fight: Fighting For an Audience

The Stop Smiling Film Review

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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Friday, January 20, 2006

Why We Fight
Directed by Eugene Jarecki
(Sony Pictures Classics)

Opens today in New York and Los Angeles

Reviewed by Michael Joshua Rowin

Better now than never but still unable to shake a heavy feeling of inconsequentiality, Eugene Jarecki's documentary Why We Fight arrives one year after the beginning of George W. Bush's second term to challenge the pretender-in-chief's foreign imperialism and provide historical context for the systemic militarism that has led to it. Jarecki's approach to documentary is in part classical, relying extensively on talking-head interviews to paint its portrait: political big shots John McCain, William Kristol, and Richard Perle and “ordinary people” affected by the Iraq War, like the father of a 9/11 victim, a new military recruit, and two fighter pilots who fired opening salvos on Baghdad. But it's also contemporary in the most pejorative sense, following the Michael Moore blueprint by manipulating personal stories and musical cues, with the self-destructive result of undermining its own well-researched polemic on the insidious ubiquity of the military-industrial complex.

Why We Fight takes as its starting point President Eisenhower's farewell address, in which he coined the term “military-industrial complex” in warning against the potential catastrophic confluence of the defense industry, the military, government policy, and corporate interests. When focusing exclusively on this phenomenon, Jarecki constructs a disturbing report that needs to be seen and heard by the American public. The military-industrial complex, the film convincingly suggests, has become so powerful and all-consuming as to blend invisibly into the fabric of our society. Indeed, it is the answer to the film's title, an ironic homage to the Frank Capra series of World War II propaganda by the same name that answered its viewers' needs more adequately (if still simplistically) than the standard media spoon-feedings of today. Jarecki's conclusion that the current steroidal military-industrial complex is responsible for the U.S. occupation of Iraq — which far better serves Halliburton's profit margins than the country's security — should inspire nothing but outrage at the flawed system we've mistaken for a bastion of democracy.

Where Why We Fight fails is when it veers off this track instead of allowing the argument to speak for itself. Jarecki squanders screen time on Wilton Sekzer, whose son was killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11, and directionless, newly motherless 23-year-old William Solomon, who out of personal loss and financial difficulties (the film suggests) enlists in the army. The parallel editing of these storylines into the body of Why We Fight isn't wholly gratuitous, drawing the simple lessons that Sekzer's initial gung-ho attitude of vengeance in support of Bush's war was inevitably disillusioned by evidence of the real reasons behind it, and that the true burdens of the military-industrial machinery are placed on the underprivileged. Nor are Sekzer and Solomon unworthy subjects. Their appearances, however, tug on heart-strings with uncomfortable force at the expense of deeper textual analysis, failing to deliver a suitable "human face" for the large-scale issues at stake because they remain only tangentially related to the film's thesis and never transcend mawkish sensationalism.

Then there's the film's egregious use of music, an unfortunate example of the biggest problem in American cinema today. Fiction and documentary filmmakers are now so dependent on the guidance of music that the accompanying images, in effect, become neutralized. At the end of Why We Fight Jarecki tries to drive home the terrible cost of the military-industrial complex by showing collateral damage from the Iraq War, but the sequence is set to hackneyed minor chords and swelling strings. The exploitative handling of this imagery is already questionable, but even more so is the effort to buttress it with an overindulgent soundtrack. Just when you thought it couldn't get worse, Johnny Cash's version of “Hurt” and Belle & Sebastian's “I Fought In a War” (groan) finalize the film's complete reversal of principles and descent into post-9/11 kitsch.

The question then remains: What audience is Why We Fight fighting for and reaching out to? Left-leaning audiences will readily agree with it, but the lack of ideas on how to take on such an enormous enterprise as the military-industrial complex limits the film's intrusion into reality. Right-leaning audiences might be awoken, but the film's refusal to lay off unsubtle manipulations will certainly turn them off. Does Why We Fight then work as cinema? The answer for our particular case study is a resounding “no”: it seems more like another case of the Left forsaking action in order to convince itself of its own righteousness.



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