On the Scene week of 02/23/06


"Why We Fight" is a war of words, images and philosophies.

It is also a compelling documentary for the battle-weary and war-torn, looking for answers where none may exist.

Indeed, allows acclaimed filmmaker Eugene Jarecki, whose "Why We Fight" opens Friday, Feb. 24, there are no answers. But, without question, there are needs to examine why.

Indeed, Jarecki's controversial film could be called Fahrenheit 98.6 – the temperature at which presumably normal people burn to bring back the atavistic cave-dweller in all, starting wars, ending arguments with bombs and bombast.

The film – using the title of a series of national propaganda films made by Frank Capra during World War II – is made up of interviews, archival shots, footage and the prophetic words of a former president once better known for attacking golf than the gulf that evolved between society and the military.

If you once wore an "I Like Ike" button, you're going to love him here. Because Dwight D. Eisenhower is depicted in all his glory at open MIC night – the first chief executive to warn of the dangers of a military-industrial complex, which, simply put, he foretold correctly.

And "Why We Fight" is telling in the way it shows his words coming to fruition.

The bombs bursting in air gave proof through the night that society would be flagged by myopic manipulations. War … what's it good for? The Pentagon, for one!

And the filmmaker whose "The Trials of Henry Kissinger" got a court date in theaters across the country – if not a positive verdict from the former secretary of state himself – is putting the national consciousness on trial here, with former presidents and current leaders on the witness list.

Is Vietnam's peace with honor a piece of the contemporary battlefield? Is "Why We Fight" aimed at the heart or the mind – or both? Does it implode – or explode?

"It is about who we are and where we as Americans are going," says Jarecki, going places himself with this daring documentary. Indeed, it has attracted a disclaimer from Sen. John McCain's chief of staff, stating that the presidential aspirant's words in the film were "intentionally twisted" concerning Vice President Dick Cheney's involvement in Iraq contracts won by his old firm, Halliburton.

Hell to pay? Fightin' words? Not so for Jarecki, who disagreed, and told Roll Call, "McCain didn't impugn Cheney in any way."

But that's only part of the picture – 98 minutes long as it is, but timeless in its accounting of why we do what we do when we do. With Iraq and Iran separated by one letter, and the United States involved in both, an imperiled nation turns its eyes not to a Joltin' Joe but to its shaken heart. Is Jarecki just a one-man army of truth – or tragic misinterpretation? "This is all about the perils of empire," and empirical truths accompanying them, relates Jarecki of the film whose focus involves those who have given their sons and daughters to war and those who sent them.

"We are looking at an injured world; we, America, are the de facto empire of today. We are one of those countries we once sought to avoid."

No avoiding the impact of Sept. 11, says the filmmaker, nor the change effected in America with its twin towers of tragedy and triumph of the human spirit that day and the daze following. What Eisenhower imparted in his departing speech, his 1961 Farewell Address as president, is a welcomed advisory for a nation addressing different obstacles.

"Eisenhower was experiencing frustration of being a war-weary soldier when he offered this extraordinary [progressive] viewpoint – he was prescient," he says.

Precious and few are the accounts of Eisenhower being an effective leader, but telescoping the times has painted a different picture – not of a mild Milquetoast but a brainy ex-officer who bridged the military and society with a quiet bravura and brilliance.

"Here was a man," goes the filmmaker, "who faced the real terror of nuclear war and advised restraint. Eisenhower was a voice of sanity."

One to be reckoned with in today's insane times? "The forces he feared have so influenced our own lives," says Jarecki.

Has the miasma of prospective mushroom clouds forever clouded our military policy? There is hope, says the filmmaker: "I have deep faith in people to come through at the darkest hour; people wake up and seek change."

Some things don't change, however … "The greater our control of the planet, the smaller it becomes."

The ball's in … whose court? In a way, says Jarecki, testosterone may be testing the patience of human survival. It is a man's world – but maybe it's time for women to grab a corner of its control.

"The more calming, caring impulses of women may be called for," he believes. "I have a sense that's what will cause the species to survive. It's getting a little boring in the 'men's club,' " clubbing its way to control and forced acquiescence.

If there is any moment of hope, it doesn't have to run on the U.S.'s timetable, says Jarecki. Time will tell. "I don't think the rest of the world expects things as quickly as the United States does."

What's to be expected of Jarecki – whose documentary danced off with the grand jury prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival – is a style that suggests no punches pulled and continued jabbing at social jawbones. But then, it is a family tradition, he says of his Jewish upbringing rooted in rooting for the underdog when justified. (He has not far to look for inspiration – and the encroachment of controversy; Eugene's brother, Andrew, captured an Oscar nomination as well, for his contoversial documentary on "Capturing the Friedmans," about a family's internecine battles, in 2003.)

What is the Y factor of "Why We Fight"? It should never be interpreted as Israel, the concerned Jew in him contends: "The worst thing that can be done is to equate the interests of the U.S. and Israel with the Iraq war; that will create backlash."

Indeed, the two nations together have taken their licks and lashings in the past.

"Why We Fight" is game enough to be honest in depicting war as the quintessential game, where rules – and rulers – are constantly shifting.

"We have a history of being a ping-pong of forces," states Jarecki.

Whose serve?



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