Warmer Than 'Fahrenheit 9/11'

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 10, 2006

Of all the incendiary left-wing, anti-Bush screeds that have become the flavor of the decade for the American documentary community, Eugene Jarecki's "Why We Fight" is probably the best.

Jarecki isn't just a polemicist, he's also a filmmaker. So the movie isn't entirely bloviated experts coating his lens in saliva blurs while treating the audience to an up-close-and-personal tour of their flaring nostrils. He understands narrative.

Thus a few subtler stories are filtered through the rhetoric. The best is of a young New Yorker who, recently having lost his mother, has decided to join the Army. This young man is such a good-egg type, so decent, human and likable, that the war behind him -- that may ultimately engulf him -- comes to seem monstrously evil. And anyone who has ever been in the military will wince at the thought of the first contact between his idealism and the squalor and brutality of basic-training culture. Ouch!

Then there's the story of the first raid, the Stealth bomber mission that opened Operation Iraqi Freedom by depositing some bunker busters in what was thought to be Saddam's back pocket. It's well narrated by a bland young officer who flew the command ship, and you know where it's going: to the ground and to scenes of dead Iraqi kids.

Memo to left-wing anti-Bushies: Stories like this work! Don't lecture! Tell stories! Much better! And that's why, for my money, "Why We Fight" (the title is taken from Frank Capra's propaganda series in World War II) out-performs "Fahrenheit 9/11"; the fact that it doesn't show a hectoring buffoon like Michael Moore regularly on camera is another mercy for which Jarecki should be thanked.

The other singularity is that the director lets the other side talk, thus a few earnest neo-cons lke Richard Perle and William Kristol get to make their points. Jarecki restrains himself from cheap-shotting them in ambush interviews or playing visual tricks like shooting them backlit from a low angle so they look like the Wizard of Oz.

But . . . he's still a polemicist. Generally, the rest of the film consists of the usual suspects saying the usual things. The argument -- a little wider than usual, as guided by Gore Vidal, the conspiratorialist novelist -- is not so much that Bush is a fool and a knave, but that American culture is foolish and knavish in that it depends on a war economy and that the secret purpose of foreign policy is to find enemies so we can fight wars to justify our huge military spending and keep our plants running at full capacity. Bush didn't invent this system, it invented itself after World War II. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first to note it, in his famous "military-industrial complex" farewell address of 1961, which is a sort of a touchstone for the film.

Some of the stops are absurd. Jarecki gets all in a twist over the scandal of conservative think tanks. Conservative think tanks actually exist! Why is this permitted? Who do they think they are? Sometimes their ideas even find their way into public policy. Of course, no mention is made of liberal think tanks.

There are no citations, only credentials, and occasionally someone says something so flagrantly wrong it's offensive. Vidal, for example, airily runs the anti-Hiroshima tirade by the camera, as the font of all American evil. The Japanese, he asserts, were actively seeking peace during the summer of 1945, and Truman ignored it because he wanted to drop Fat Man on the Japanese city to terrify the Russians.

Well, yes and no. The Japanese (Here's the citation: Nuclearfiles.org, home page for the Project of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, reprinting the Smithsonian's before-and-after account of the Enola Gay mission and I quote from the before section) sought a negotiated peace, but their "initiative" was "weak and indecisive."

The Allied policy, of course, was simple: unconditional surrender and it was simply impossible for the Allies to accept negotiations. And Mr. Vidal seems to forget another event, of the summer of '45, called the Battle of Okinawa. If the Japanese had wanted to surrender, that would have been a very good spot to start.

Why We F ight (98 minutes at Landmark's Bethesda Row and the Loews AMC Dupont Circle) is unrated.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company