It's Been Real sets out to examine and analyze the documentary in all of its forms, looking at differing forms of expression, variant approaches to subject matter, and at our unending tendency to dramatize true events as a way of understanding our engagement with them.
"Why do we fight? I think"¦I honestly don't have an answer for you."-Anonymous Citizen
The term "Why We Fight" comes fairly loaded from the get go. Originated as the title of Frank Capra's pro-WWII propaganda films, the term has since come to stand as a call to arms, an inspirational slogan that gives our military actions reasons and gives our troops motivations to act as they are ordered. So when Eugene Jarecki named his 2005 documentary Why We Fight it was a bold gesture to say the least. Made up entirely of talking heads and archival footage of America at war throughout the last century and most prominently during the current conflict in Iraq, the film looks at the term less as an inspirational call to arms and more as an implicit question that should be answered, namely: Why DO we fight?
It is very difficult to answer a question as loaded as this one without a bit of bias, and Jarecki's examination of the will to war in American culture is certainly slanted in one direction. It is clear from word one that this is an anti-war film with a markedly liberal take on the lead up to the Iraq war. What sets this apart from the many other anti-Iraq war documentaries released around the same time is the diligence at hand here. Despite obviously disagreeing with them (and often even subtly undercutting them soon after they speak), Jarecki takes the time to ask the questions and actually listen to the answers provided by the other side. Sure Gore Vidal is featured, but John McCain also shows up, and both are given the chance to voice their opinions, which is worth at least a little credit on the part of the director.
Most of the best talking head segments in the film, however, come from the smaller players. Whether it's a conversation with the bombers who fired the opening shots of the Iraq War, discussions with citizens of all ages and opinions in both America and Iraq, or a diatribe from a disillusioned former Lieutenant who thinks the system is broken, the more honest and heartfelt moments in the film come from the less prominent people who are more free to voice their actual opinions, and often come across with much more passionate conviction than their political counterparts.
Perhaps the most important of the prominent talking heads is a voice from our nation's past. The film returns again and again to President Dwight D. Eisenhower's farewell address, when he warned of the dangers of the military-industrial complex, of the consequences of a permanent standing army, and of the sacrifices our nation would have to make in other areas in order to feed this ever growing beast. The film is convinced that Eisenhower's warnings have gone unheeded, and it provides ample evidence to support this conviction. The film is often at its best when it examines the complex interconnectedness of the military-industrial complex and the simple fact that a lot of people make a lot of money off of going to war. Alternatively, the film is at its worst when it is blatantly emotionally manipulative, never more so than in the ongoing conversation with Wilton Sekzer, a retired cop and Vietnam vet who lost his son in the World Trade Center on 9/11 and began as a vehement supporter of the Iraq war, even arranging to have his son's name placed on a bomb, before realizing the war had little connection to 9/11 and turning against both the war and President Bush. Sekzer's story is tragic, a poignant look at a man who lost everything and was willing to fight to get it back, if only that was what his country was actually doing. But it is also used manipulatively by the film, becoming one of the several moments in which Jarecki goes over the line to prove his point.
I don't know that Why We Fight is a great documentary, but it is certainly an important one. The film wears its bias on its sleeve, taking pains to get opinions from those who disagree with its message but always landing firmly on the liberal, anti-war side. I tend to agree with the point Jarecki is making, and that may color my appreciation of the film, but ultimately, I prefer my documentaries, especially those with a political bent, to be as unbiased and straightforward as possible. Why We Fight knows the answers it seeks from the moment it begins, and I'm reasonably sure that Jarecki knew the message his documentary would send long before the cameras started rolling. I am ok with the idea that some documentaries will carry an opinion, and even with the idea that they will be conceived with one in mind. I just wish those documentaries that were biased would be a little more up front about their slant.
Yet the power of the film doesn't really lie in the answers it finds, nor in the ones it presents to us again and again. The true power of Why We Fight lies in its invitation to the viewers to answer its titular question for themselves. Biased or not, the best documentaries ask something from the audience, whether it's a call to some sort of action or just a request to think more carefully about an important message. The purpose of documentaries, especially ones as politically charged as this one, is to make us think about the world around us, and hopefully to get us to question our own preconceptions, if not change our minds entirely. So long as a documentary manages to incite further thought about an important issue, it's a success in my book.
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Coming up on It's Been Real:
10/2: Nanook of the North
10/16: Fog of War
10/30: Super Size Me
11/13: Dear Zachary