Movie review: ‘Why We Fight'

2 stars (out of four)

"Why We Fight," a new documentary about America's motivations for war, has a lot in common with its thematic predecessor, "Fahrenheit 9/11." They both make a pretty entertaining case against our current war and question the integrity of our president, but more than that, these docs manipulate imagery, music and sound bites to work their audiences into a frenzy.

This is why, looking back, I'm relieved that I didn't review Michael Moore's film--swept up in my own frenzy, I would have given that questionable piece of journalism more stars than it deserved--and why I'm relieved that chronic procrastination led me to think twice about "Why We Fight."

Directed by Eugene Jarecki ("The Trials of Henry Kissinger") and named after a series of WW II films by Frank Capra, "Why We Fight" is a rousing and selective jaunt through the history of American warfare, with wonks and politicians floating liberal conventional wisdom: We wage war for power and money.

While the best documentaries at least trick us into feeling that we're exploring a topic along with the filmmaker--a great example would be Jarecki's brother Andrew, who led us on a strange journey in "Capturing the Friedmans"--Jarecki seems to have had his answers before asking the questions. He's a master at filtering, at choosing the best quotes to bolster his argument and at connecting dots that, perhaps, shouldn't be. (When one notable quotable asserts that "Truman wanted to drop the bomb to show off," it's a clue that Jarecki might just be comfortable simplifying.)

But you've got to hand it to the guy: Every film needs a hero and he sure knows how to pick 'em. Here we've got two: a retired New York City policeman whose son died on 9/11 and Dwight Eisenhower, whose final presidential address to the nation in January 1961 begged us to watch out for the dangerous military-industrial complex.

That Eisenhower was a prescient Republican makes his words all the more powerful when used in Jarecki's left-leaning film. And the black-and-white footage of his speech provides "Why We Fight" its structure, with Jarecki's case based around proving Dwight right.

His other protagonist, Wilton Sekzer, an NYPD cop for 35 years, gives the film its emotional throughline, much as the mother of a dead soldier did for Moore. In fact, both mourning parents go through similar transformations, starting out as staunch Bush supporters, ending up disillusioned--and exploited (mildly, in Jarecki's case) by a partisan documentarian.

That being said, Sekzer's story is moving. Seeking to honor his son's life by avenging his death, Sekzer, a Vietnam vet, persuades the military to write his son's name on a bomb headed straight for Iraq, only later to have his trust shattered when Bush shies away from the link between Al Qaeda and Iraq.

Sekzer is compelling and sympathetic, the one genuine character in Jarecki's unsurprising cast of talking heads that includes John "the hardest working man in showbiz" McCain criticizing his own party, something he should probably keep a lid on if he wants to be president; Weekly Standard matinee idol Bill Kristol and teddy bear Richard Perle, both making unsatisfactory arguments for the right; and the eminently quotable Gore Vidal.

Then there are the familiar arguments: Think tanks control policy. Halliburton controls policy. A tiny cabal of rich people control policy. These are all the same people. I'm not saying Jarecki's wrong. He's just not necessarily right. And even if you agree with his politics and enjoy a nice cinematic pat on the back, in the age of the fast and slick documentary, why trust him?

abenedikt@tribune.com

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`Why We Fight'

Written and directed by Eugene Jarecki; edited by Nancy Kennedy; music by Robert Miller; produced by Jarecki and Susannah Shipman; featuring Sen. John McCain, Gore Vidal, Charles Lewis, William Kristol, James Roche, John S.D. Eisenhower, retired Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski and Wilton Sekzer. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:39. MPAA rating: PG-13 for disturbing war images and brief language.

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