Combining the skills of journalist and poet, Eugene Jarecki joins the top ranks of non-fiction filmmakers with "Why We Fight," a thoroughgoing and affecting film on the nature and causes of the American military-industrial complex. Pic sets the gold standard for political docus, and should command serious bidding from savvy distribs.

Combining the skills of journalist and poet, Eugene Jarecki joins the top ranks of non-fiction filmmakers with “Why We Fight,” a thoroughgoing and affecting film on the nature and causes of the American military-industrial complex. Latter phrase, delivered by Dwight D. Eisenhower in his Presidential farewell address and so often bandied about that it may have lost its impact, is the film’s mainspring, containing ideas Jarecki explores with astonishing detail and insight. Pic sets the gold standard for political docus, and should command serious bidding from savvy distribs who could carve out a solid theatrical window and longterm vid play.

While the greatest value of “Why We Fight” is its broad historical overview of what spurred the U.S. to create a permanent war-making machine after WWII, it also has immediate comparative value in that, unlike “Fahrenheit 9/11,” it doesn’t preach to the converted. Rather, Jarecki does his research, employs no trickery and respects his aud’s intelligence, using an educational tone to deliver the film to a broader, less ideologically driven public.

Pic’s brilliance may not be a surprise to those who viewed Jarecki’s previous “The Trials of Henry Kissinger.” And while the new film’s ambitions are far grander, Jarecki is able to whittle things down to the essentials. Power-behind-the-throne-theme is illustrated after a beautifully crafted title montage, with comments by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and William Kristol, head of key neo-conservative think tank Project for a New American Century, that coincidentally echo the exact rhetoric later contained in President George W. Bush’s second inaugural speech.

But the pic pays attention to everyday citizens, not just think tank specialists. Perhaps the most powerful of these is Wilton Sekzer, who first describes his experience of living through Sept. 11 and enduring the death of one of his sons, killed in the Twin Towers. With a keen dramatist’s instinct for building to an emotional climax, Jarecki gracefully revisits Sekzer’s story from time to time, as he does with the stories of young jobless Army recruit William Solomon, and the two pilots who dropped the first bombs of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Sekzer’s story is devastating, as he recalls his first stages of grief, followed by vengeance, seeking to get his son’s name placed on a missile during the Iraq campaign, and then his shocked reaction to Bush’s comments that Iraq had no involvement in 9/11. As the film’s Everyman, his sense of betrayal by a government he trusted may sound naive, but Sekzer’s conclusions (“There’s something wrong with the system”) resonate powerfully.

Gore Vidal’s comment that “we live in the United States of Amnesia,” seems to serves as a thematic underline, as the pic circles back to Eisenhower’s warning that the country was potentially mired in a marriage between the military and a network of corporations whose main business is supplying the military with weaponry. Ike’s daughter Susan notes her father saw this build-up during his time as Supreme Allied commander during WWII and in his early years as president during the Cold War build-up, and began to realize that this new system wasn’t about national defense in classic sense, but rather of creating a permanent machine for purposes of profit, not protection.

Key insights are provided by a dazzling array of thinkers across the political spectrum –a refreshing change from the hidebound approach of most current political pics — and the effect is of a real debate between the likes of Chalmers Johnson, an old CIA hand and tough critic of current policy, and Richard Perle, one of the key craftsmen of the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive attack. Jarecki is admirably able to indicate his own perspective while allowing a conversation to take place.

As cinema, “Why We Fight” (which cleverly takes its title from the series of WWII propaganda films made by Frank Capra) goes far beyond talking heads, juxtaposing a remarkable range of archival footage covering every major and minor U.S. war in the past 50 years, and also matching up characters such as the young and innocent Solomon with retired Lt. Gen. Karen Kwiatkowski, who says she had to leave her Pentagon post after witnessing how private think tanks and corporations were dictating policy to military brass.

Closing theme of a fixed militarized state run by corporations and all too reminiscent of ancient Rome’s empire may sound pat on paper, but has never before hit with such impact on the screen.

Editor Nancy Kennedy creates a musical flow and a majestic pace in her assembly of a huge array of elements, including interviews, archival footage and fresh verite-style footage. Sense of artfulness is aided by a chilling and beautiful score by Robert Miller.

Why We Fight

Production

A BBC Storyville presentation of a Charlotte Street film in association with BBC and Arte. (International sales: Cinetic Media, New York.) Produced by Eugene Jarecki, Susanna Shipman. Executive producers, Roy Ackerman, Nick Fraser, Hans-Robert Eisenhauer. Directed, written by Eugene Jarecki.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Etienne Sauret, May-Ying Welch, Brett Wiley, Foster Wiley, Chris Li, Sam Cullman; editor, Nancy Kennedy; music, Robert Miller; music supervisor, Sue Jacobs; sound, Brian Buckley, Peter Miller, Paul Rusnak; supervising sound editor, Joe Caterini; associate producer, Alessandra Meyer. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 23, 2005. Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Wilton Sekzer, Chalmers Johnson, William Solomon, Charles Lewis, Richard Perle, William Kristol, Lt. Gen. Karen Kwiatkowski, Joseph Ciricione, Susan Eisenhower, John S.D. Eisenhower, Anh Duong, Gwynne Dyer, Sen. John McCain, Gore Vidal, Franklin Spinney. (English, Arabic dialogue)
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