Political documentaries have been a Bush-era cottage industry, with Michael Moore's much-kvetched-about Fahrenheit 9/11 sitting atop a heap that has also included Errol Morris' heady The Fog of War, media doc Control Room, war docs Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland, corporate corruption exposé Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and many more.
One of the first films in this stretch of wonky cinema was Eugene Jarecki's The Trials of Henry Kissinger, based on critic Christopher Hitchens' book-length condemnation of the former U.S. diplomat. It was a sober, probing, persuasive film, traits it shares with Jarecki's newest, Why We Fight, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival (the same fest that launched Hustle & Flow and Forty Shades of Blue), but it has taken more than a year to show up on a local screen.
An essay on the past 45 years of American militarism, Why We Fight certainly has the Bush administration's current misadventures in Iraq in its crosshairs, but it isn't a polemic. Unlike the messier, more emotional Fahrenheit 9/11, it isn't a partisan film.
Why We Fight takes as its hero Republican war-hero president Dwight Eisenhower, who warned against the growth of what he famously dubbed the "military-industrial complex" upon leaving office in 1961. And in tracing how Eisenhower's dark prophecy ("God help us in this country when someone sits in the White House who doesn't know as much about the military as I do," he's also quoted as saying) has come to fruition, Why We Fight implicates administrations both Democratic and Republican. The villain in Why We Fight, to the extent there is one, isn't a man but a system that has been corrupted and manipulated over decades.
The sober tone of the film acts as a needed corrective to current national debate. There's no rational reason why matters of war and peace should be a political football. Unlike tax policy or cultural politics, sending our kids to war shouldn't be a matter of party loyalty or political philosophy. But that's what it's become in an intensely politicized era, and Why We Fight seeks to unpack some of the politics surrounding the use of the American military.
Along the way, Jarecki's camera focuses patiently and respectfully on thinkers from across the political divide, from hawkish conservatives such as Senator John McCain and neo-cons Richard Perle and William Kristol to skeptical liberals as disparate as Texan Dan Rather and expatriate Gore Vidal. The most compelling "expert witness" may be CIA veteran Chalmers Johnson, author of the book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. Chalmers defines "blowback" as the "unintended consequences of foreign operations kept secret from the American people" and implies that the attacks of 9/11 were an example of blowback despite attempts to dismiss the bombers' motives by tautologically labeling them "evil-doers."
But the most compelling figure in the film might be retired New York City cop and Vietnam vet Wilton Sekzer, who lost a son in the 9/11 attacks. His journey from sorrow to vengeance to disillusionment is one that an awful lot of Americans have or are still experiencing.