Who knew the next Michael Moore lives just down the road a piece from Burlington, in the Mad River Valley? Eugene Jarecki (The Trials of Henry Kissinger) has hit the big time. His new film isn't just receiving national attention; it's being hailed in the highest circles as a great work, very probably the finest documentary the year will bring.
"Of all the incendiary, left-wing, anti-Bush screeds that seem to have become the flavor of the decade in the American documentary community, Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight is probably the best," writes Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Stephen Hunter in the Washington Post. Vanity Fair's James Wolcott calls the work a "gut-punching movie which exposes the military-industrial complex's reign of fear and post-9/11 coup d'etât" while attributing to it the "conviction and fire power of Bob Dylan's Masters of War."
The raves just keep coming in: Entertainment Weekly, Variety, Rolling Stone, Interview, Newsweek. There was also a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance last year, and Jarecki appeared on "The Daily Show" on January 16. I think it's safe to say, a star is born.
In Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore explored the ways fear is force-fed to Americans through the media matrix of news, entertainment, alarmist broadcasts and terror alerts, and then manipulated for political advantage. Jarecki picks up the theme and takes it a step further. The United States, his thesis asserts, is dependent upon a war economy, and the tacit role of its foreign policy is to find new enemies so we can keep fighting new wars, justify staggering military spending, and keep plants that supply the military running at full capacity.
As unthinkable a reality as that might be, the thought that it might be true -- now or in the future -- is traced back to someone in a position to know. Jarecki uses as a central scripture President Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1961 farewell address and his prophetic warnings about the looming specter of the "military-industrial complex," as he called it. "God help this country," the former Allied commander in Europe remarked, "when somebody sits at this desk who doesn't know as much about the military as I do."
What Eisenhower knew and lamented in private, according to his daughter Susan, was that World War II brought about an unprecedented and unholy marriage between the military and a network of corporations whose principal business was supplying it with ever more sophisticated and expensive weapons. What her father saw on the horizon was a new system geared less to national defense than the creation of a permanent war machine, whose primary purpose is no longer protection but profit. In the 1960s, such notions must have smacked of paranoia. Forty years later, a government contractor is a heartbeat away from the presidency.
The writer-director has done his homework. I'm not sure I've seen a film of this kind as deeply researched and reflective of a comparably broad range of opinions. Jarecki features commentators critical of the current administration, but gives equal time to such influential insiders as Richard Perle, one of the neocons behind Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive attack; Repubican Senator John McCain; William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and head of the powerful conservative think tank Project for a New American Century; and Ken Adelman, the former arms-control director who predicted the invasion of Iraq would be a "cakewalk." The result is what "fair and balanced" is supposed to look like.
At the same time, several of the movie's most striking moments come in personal accounts offered by Americans much further down the food chain. There's an idealistic young man who enlists in the Army after losing his mother. There are stealth-bomber pilots who dropped the bunker busters that kicked off 2003's Operation Iraqi Freedom -- which missed Saddam but killed dozens of innocent men, women and children.
The heart and soul of the picture, though, is the story of retired New York City cop Wilton Sekzer, whose son died in the World Trade Center attacks. Jarecki tracks the man's personal journey: from his initial desire for revenge (he arranged for the young man's name to be inscribed on a 2000-pound bomb that was dropped on Iraq), to the shock, bewilderment and betrayal he felt when President Bush later admitted at a press conference he had no evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the strike on the Twin Towers. "'I don't know where people got the idea that I connected Iraq to 9/11,''' Sekzer quotes. "Well, if he didn't have anything to do with 9/11, why're we going in there? Is he nuts or what?"
Gore Vidal has a great line in the film: "We live in the United States of Amnesia." Anyone who pays close attention to the unsettling reasons Jarecki provides in Why We Fight will be unlikely to forget them anytime soon.
The director will take part in a Q&A at the Roxy on February 17 & 18, following the 4 and 6:45 p.m. screenings.