Titling a documentary Why We Fight is audacious—the name comes from a series of Frank Capra films made to justify U.S. involvement in World War II. It's even more audacious to have that film present conclusions about our current war that are far less boosterish than those Capra reached. On the other hand, if director Eugene Jarecki had, like Capra, encountered a few easy answers, he might have been able to make a different film. Instead, he gets a lot of different responses in conversations with everyone from Gore Vidal to John McCain to Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment For International Peace to Weekly Standard editor William Kristol. Most of them seem to think they have the answer to the question, but they can't all be right, can they?
In the film's view, no. Ultimately, Why We Fight reveals itself as yet another leftie doc with an anti-war agenda. But the mere fact that it takes time to ask questions and listen to opposing viewpoints sets it apart from the pack. Jarecki puts his talking heads into dialogues with less-public players, and the big picture frequently pays off, as when a conversation with the bombers who fired the opening shots against one of Saddam Hussein's palaces gives way to a trip to the Baghdad morgue, and a discussion of the overstated accuracy of "smart" weapons.
One key voice in the conversation comes from the past. The film repeatedly returns to Dwight Eisenhower's farewell address, with its warnings against the "military-industrial" complex that profits from keeping the U.S. in a militarized state. Why We Fight piles on evidence that suggests Eisenhower's warning has gone unheeded, and the film is at its best when exploring the damning connections between corporate interests, political think tanks, and the politicians who answer to both of them. It's at its worst when it nudges a bit too hard, as in segments profiling Wilton Sekzer, a retired cop who initially embraced the war in Iraq as just payback for the son he lost in the World Trade Center attacks, but who has subsequently undergone a change of heart. His story is wrenching. It's also used manipulatively in a film that's much more challenging when inviting viewers to question their own answer to the title.