Why We Fight (documentary)

“Why We Fight” purports to be about why America has gone to war historically, but let’s be honest here: It’s all about Bush and Iraq. Previous engagements like Korea and Vietnam are given only cursory treatment, the real thrust being that the current Iraq conflagration is wrong and that Bush is a bad president. This is just a Michael Moore film without Michael Moore — without the ego and the bombast and the cheap theatrics. It’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” that’s had a shave and a shower.

I see any removal of Michael Moore as a step in the right direction, and surely filmmaker Eugene Jarecki recognizes, as do many other liberals, that Moore sometimes hurts his side more than he helps. An anti-Bush, anti-war documentary that remains calm and non-melodramatic might be in order, to rinse away the negative feelings caused by “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

Dichotomously, “Why We Fight” suffers from being unoriginal. Like it or not, we DID already have a “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and it covered much of the same ground as “Why We Fight.” Do we need another one, even if it’s a more palatable version? You can go to another restaurant if you don’t like what you had at this one, but that fact remains, you already ate.

“Why We Fight” begins with Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address, in which he warned against letting the military industrial complex get too big, and against the United States becoming imperial. That was in 1961. Forty-four years later, the military industrial complex is huge — the film says $750 billion is spent on defense every year, “and profits are up” — and some view our foreign policies as reeking of imperialism.

It all boils down to money, Jarecki says, and he brings up Dick Cheney’s connections to defense contractor Halliburton, as well as various other economic factors that he says play a part in modern America’s foreign policies. He does not focus on making Bush look foolish, the way Moore did. Instead, he presents the facts — which surely someone will call into question if the film is released nationally — and largely lets them speak for themselves (though he does have interviews with the likes of John McCain, Gore Vidal and Eisenhower’s son).

Some of the data is sobering, even frightening. A mention is made of Dick Cheney’s 1992 directive (when he was Secretary of Defense) that the U.S. do all it can to keep itself as the world’s only “superpower,” including acting unilaterally, if necessary, to preserve America’s “interests” — a philosophy that is at the core of the Bush doctrine and that sounds scary when you put it in those terms.

It is hard to remain neutral in today’s heated political environment, and maybe neutrality isn’t a worthwhile aim anyway. My role as a film critic is to describe the movie’s merits as a movie — how well it does what it’s trying to do, in other words — and not to say whether its ideas are good. The film is shrewd to keep its leftist tendencies subtle at first, so that even conservative-thinking viewers may be drawn into it and perhaps wind up giving the liberal ideas some thought. If you’re a hard-core conservative, I suppose that’s sneaky, tantamount to propagandism. As always, a film being well-made and intelligently laid-out will be trumped by the viewer’s pre-conceived notions, just as, in the case of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” a film’s occasional shoddiness will be ignored by those who support its ideas.

B (1 hr., 35 min.; PG-13, one F-word, some war images.)