Friday, November 11, 2011

Why We Fight; A Meandering, Less-Declarative Fahrenheit.

The Good: Good thesis, Good use of archival footage, Decent DVD bonus features
The Bad: Repetitive DVD bonus features, Sacrifices some clarity for journalistic balance.
The Basics: On DVD, Why We Fight is a decent documentary about the power and scope of the military-industrial complex, which is eye-opening, if not as powerful as it could be.

Despite how polarizing a filmmaker like Michael Moore can be, there is something refreshing about watching some of his films and seeing that he has a stand to take, he takes it and his message becomes clear. Indeed, his quest in Roger & Me is compelling and his thesis in Fahrenheit 9/11 becomes almost undeniable based on the structure of his argument. Moore makes his documentaries fun and poignant and while Fahrenheit 9/11 (reviewed here!) may not have delivered the desired outcome, it's clear what the message is and what the director's goal is. When I sat down to watch Eugene Jarecki's documentary Why We Fight, I think I was expecting something more like a Moore documentary. The result was closer to Shut Up And Sing (reviewed here!), though Jarecki's outing is a bit more relevant and better.

When Dwight D. Eisenhower was leaving the office of the President of the United States, he gave a farewell address. In Eisenhower's Farewell Address, the President warns against the power and necessity of the military-industrial complex. Flash forward to 2005; the United States is at war in Iraq, the World Trade Center buildings have been leveled and the two have no linkage save a discourse created by biased individuals who had long planned an invasion of Iraq. Experts from within the Pentagon, the military establishment, Congress, and the arts explore the relationship between the military-industrial complex's influence and the drive toward warfare, both current and contemporary following 1961. As the business of war is explored, the idea that the Complex is self-sustaining and rooted more in power and control than defense becomes clear.

The problem is, writer/director Eugene Jarecki makes his point eloquently and early in Why We Fight and then never explores any options for undermining the system. The Beast persists and Why We Fight is simply an acknowledgment that we (the viewers and citizenry) are under its thumb. So, for example, when Jarecki's interviewed experts - who include John McCain, Gore Vidal, Susan Eisenhower (the President's granddaughter), and Karen Kwiatkowski (a Pentagon insider who now dissents) - establish that one of the most insidious actions taken by the military-industrial complex is to spread single contracts out among as many Congressional Districts as possible in order to keep the politicians beholden to them (the Complex means jobs, jobs are essential for votes), no possible solution is mentioned to this problem. Jarecki, nor his on-screen debators, suggest that there is an alternative to this. Instead, the light is shined on the Beast, but it has no incentive to slither away.

Similarly, Jarecki's production/directing style is more than a little lackadaisical in making many of the movie's points. Throughout the film, there are stories interwoven that fall out of the narrative for significant portions of the documentary. So, for example, a disillusioned 22 year-old enlists after his mother dies, a father whose son was killed at the World Trade Center recounts his desire for revenge and a whistleblower at the Pentagon takes a stand against the Empire that the military-industrial complex has built. But none of these threads is stayed with long enough to truly engage the viewer. The 22 year-old pops up, we here his story and he disappears for quite some time. By the time he reappears in the movie, his narrative does not so much matter. We don't care. We don't need the human face on the perpetrators of the military-industrial consequences; through the father's story we have a human face to its effects.

But more than that, the film remains overwhelmingly objective to the point of diluting its own argument. Amid footage of critics of Halliburton and Dick Cheney, comes Richard Perle declaring loudly and without any lack of authority that there is nothing inappropriate about Cheney's relationship with the military-industrial complex. I understand completely the need for a balanced argument. I applaud arguments that have reason, accept, acknowledge (then disembowel) the opposition view, but Jarecki's style is sloppy in this regard. There is no clear delineation between the arguments so Perle's abrupt presence and declarative nature (no matter how clearly his identity is labeled) either undercuts the principle argument of the segment or the result is that the film degenerates into a group of simple opinions by a bunch of people on what the military-industrial complex is and how it works.

Given the strength of the audio commentary track, I would like to believe that is not the case. No, it seems reasonable that the film is an argument against the need and might of the Complex and that the results of its power and influence (from think tanks to contractors to Congress) are all-encompassing, unConstitutional, and are at least partly responsible for miring the U.S. in the current military morass that is Iraq. Jarecki's ability to shape an argument is made more effectively in the film's many bonus materials. The commentary track is especially enlightening as Jarecki is joined by Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson whose insights are invaluable. At least as important, Wilkerson does not spend the commentary track pandering to Jarecki or the personas on screen. He agrees with many, but he has a fair amount of disagreement as well.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the presentation comes in one of the bonus features. In a generally lame Q&A session designed to answer the question "What do high school students think of the film?" (personally, I don't care what they thought), one of the students asks, "Why should I be willing to die for someone else's beliefs?" That's a great sentiment and a worthwhile focus of an entirely different movie.

Other DVD bonuses included extended scenes, many of which are repetitive clips of bits that made it into the film and they add nothing substantive to the presentation. After the eighth time one hears Dwight Eisenhower's Farewell Address, the point has been pretty effectively made. That was the starting point for Jarecki and it is a good place to start. It's important, though, for the film to get beyond it and it seems like it never really overcomes its roots to make bold statements about the connections between the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned about and the individuals who influenced the U.S. into the Iraq war.

As a result, Jarecki pulls punches on issues like Cheney's relationship with the Defense/War industry. For the moments Jarecki insinuates that think tanks are an unconstitutional problem, the viewer waits desperately for some corroboration from an authority on the subject. Alas, the only member of Congress interviewed for Why We Fight is John McCain. Where is Murtha? Where is John Conyers?

Outside the commentary track, Jarecki is absent from the film, focusing on the issues. And despite my critiques - and much of it may seem like minutiae and probably is - the film is a powerful statement on the connections between the disparate points of the military-industrial-Congressional complex, down to the individual lives dependent upon it. Jarecki weaves the story of the father's quest for vengeance in well-enough with the idea that the government and the military-industrial complex are designed more for their own self-perpetuation and survival than the truth.

The argument is a good one and with the DVD extras, it is fought for better than in the documentary alone. This is a worthwhile film for anyone who believes we must fight for our democracy and wants to know the ultimate Beast we must fight against for it.

For other documentaries, please check out my reviews of:
This Film Is Not Yet Rated
The Fog Of War
Who Killed The Electric Car?


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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