In 1942, Frank Capra started making a series of propaganda films encouraging Americans to take up arms against Nazi Germany. Capra used everything in his Hollywood bag of tricks, and was determined to surpass Leni Riefenstahl's celluloid sales pitch, Triumph of the Will.
Eugene Jarecki's Sundance-winning Why We Fight, a cynical polemic on how corporate interests increasingly control government policy, intentionally and unintentionally references Capra's blatantly manipulative efforts.
Jarecki presents an impassioned case that a perpetual profit-driven war machine has come to exist. Today, military contractors do business in every state (affecting employment) with resources well above $500 billion. As a retired Air Force colonel points out in the film, "We elected a defense contractor as vice-president." Even Sen. John McCain claims that the relationship between elected politicians and the defense industry "borders on corruption."
Using an effective mix of talking heads, archival footage and video montages, Jarecki balances his commentary with pundits from both sides of the issue. Liberals Gore Vidal, Chalmers Johnson and Charles Lewis share the floor with conservatives Richard Perle, John McCain and William Kristol.
The filmmaker's ultimate contention is that nearly every post-World War II military campaign waged by the United States has been driven more by financial than ideological influences; that exporting American-style democracy by force if necessary is a flimsy excuse for American imperialism.
Dick Cheney's directive that we must do everything to maintain our position as the world's sole superpower including unilateral pre-emption will send a shiver down all but the most conservative viewer's spine. More alarming is the film's examination of the influences of political think tanks and corrupt private-public sector enterprises unelected special interests that end up profoundly shaping United States policy.
Needless to say, all roads lead to George W. Bush's campaign of misinformation to sell Operation Iraqi Freedom. As satisfying as it may be to see boosters and affiliates of the current administration in Jarecki's crosshairs, the film's lack of inquiry gives credence to the charge that Why We Fight is a faux-documentary critique of current policy.
Jarecki's leftist tendencies are subtle at first, reeling viewers in with neutral facts and well-argued opinions. He avoids the hyperbolic grandstanding of Michael Moore and lays out his premise in an easy-to-digest fashion. It's a devious strategy for swaying conservative-minded viewers, and, as educational as some points are, pundits will dismiss the film as disingenuous or just plain sneaky.
Unfortunately, Jarecki strays from his larger theme about the defense industry's stranglehold on American policymakers in order to focus on current involvement in the Middle East. Previous conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Panama and Grenada are given only passing reference.
Documentaries, even Michael Moore's documentaries, ask questions and seek answers. There is, on some level, an attempt at discovery. Why We Fight presents its position and works overtime to bolster its thesis; with so little inquiry the film hovers dangerously close to propaganda.
Jarecki redeems himself, however, with the story of Wilton Sekzer, a Vietnam vet and retired New York cop. Grieving for the son he lost in the 9/11 attacks, Sekzer rallies behind our fearless leader and enthusiastically supports the war in Iraq. He writes the Pentagon, asking that his son's name be inscribed on one of the missiles, and after much bureaucratic hand-wringing his request is accepted. Many months later when Bush admits in a press conference that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, this simple and wounded patriot loses all trust in his president and government.
Though many of the film's preconceived notions border on preaching to the choir, this very human story reminds us of how war can wound us in ways we don't expect.
Showing at 7 and 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Feb. 24-25, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 26, at the Detroit Film Theatre, inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].