Devastating as it was, the last presidential election did bestow one blessing on progressives -- it cleaned out the art house. The post-election period has swept away much of what had become tiresome or belligerent in political films -- the breathless hagiographies of lefty figures or tales of the cackling villainy of the right. Gone are images of a brave, beatific John Kerry; gone, too, are case studies of Svengali Karl Rove, or shots of President Bush yukking it up with members of the House of Saud.
A recent crop of movies such as the feature film Syriana, and the documentaries Why We Fight and The Power of Nightmares take on more abstract subjects -- the web of collusion between big business and the government, the connections between politicians and military corporations, and the evolution of U.S. neoconservative and radical Islamist ideas, respectively. Films with such conceptual targets suffer from their own problems -- they tend to provide either too little information or altogether too much. Syriana does a bit of the first and The Power of Nightmares, the second, with the result of making them important films without being great ones.
Syriana director Stephen Gaghan tantalizes viewers with hints of intrigue: His multiple storylines trace corruption between oil companies, oil-rich countries in the Gulf, and the CIA and other government agencies. But hints are all we really get. Gaghan cuts from narratives just as viewers are starting to grasp them, clouds the motives of his characters, and provides a bewildered anti-hero in the form of CIA operative Bob Barnes (played by George Clooney, rakish charm obscured by 40 pounds of bureaucratic belly). Bob is manipulated by his superiors, deceived, sent on missions that support American business interests rather than the stated ideals of building democracy. He shambles through the movie wearing an expression that seems to say, “What the hell is going on?” -- a familiar question for Americans attempting to piece together our uncertain political realities, and grappling with the confusion that is Syriana itself.
While Syriana coyly refuses to draw together its conspiratorial strands, The Power of Nightmares lays out a whole wooly web. Highly praised in England and now seeking a U.S. distributor, Adam Curtis' three-part BBC documentary asserts the interdependence of neoconservative and radical Islamist thought -- both are based on a culture of fear, Curtis argues. The film is noisily erudite, which saves it from the conspiracy looney bin, but only just. Curtis' most tendentious statement -- that the notion of al-Qaeda as an international terror network is a bunch of bogeyman hocus-pocus cooked up by those other bogeymen, the neoconservatives -- nearly squanders any goodwill the filmmaker has worked up through his illuminating examination of Cold War history and intellectual trends.
Both films represent extreme approaches to the epistemological conundrums of today: How do we know what's real when we've been lied to so many times? Syriana does a bit of performance art with the question, fascinating and frustrating viewers in turn. The Power of Nightmares tells us to sit back and marvel as the truth is revealed. Luckily Why We Fight, which won the American Documentary Grand Jury prize at the Sundance film festival in 2005, splits the difference, arguing its points and calling for introspection in equal measure.
Named after Frank Capra's propaganda films, which were used to drum up popular support for World War II, Why We Fight examines the ways in which the business of making war serves political and economic interests in the United States -- and perhaps betrays the ideals for which we claim to be fighting. Why We Fight spins on the graceful, ironic axis provided by its title, offering both definition and deconstruction, arguing a point and interrogating it simultaneously: Why do we fight?
Why We Fight draws its inspiration from the speech President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave in 1961 at the end of his second term. “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the
military-industrial complex,” the five-star general said. “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” As a military man who had presided over the country's arms buildup, Eisenhower was uniquely poised to critique the very precedents he'd helped establish -- and he sounded the warning bell loud and clear.
Why We Fight digs into the incestuous relationships between corporate, military, and governmental interests, tracing back 50 years of wartime history in an attempt to demonstrate how decisions about military engagement are increasingly motivated by “profit rather than public good,” as director Eugene Jarecki asserted in a phone interview. Using archival footage, interviews with State Department and military experts, and sensitively rendered human portraits of soldiers, veterans, and everyday Iraqi and U.S. citizens, Jarecki weaves together a compelling critique of how military profits and deal-making form an unstable foundation for our economic and political system.
Jarecki builds a damning case. He crunches the numbers on the millions of dollars in war contracts that corporations like Raytheon and Halliburton have won for supplying arms and reconstruction work. Jarecki even drops by a “defense show” where contractors peddle their wares. “Collusion is our business,” says one sales rep, looking like the world's original charlatan as he performs card tricks. “Yes, collusion with the military.” The camera pulls back to reveal that the rep works for Kellogg, Brown and Root -- the engineering and construction branch of Vice President Dick Cheney's former employer, Halliburton.
Why We Fight spells out congressional complicity -- war contracts translate into jobs for constituents, which then translate into votes. The film also paints an all-encompassing portrait of the ways the United States has become dependent on the business of making war, and explores how this dependence reinforces economic inequalities.
Within this system, a disproportionate burden of guilt falls on those at the low end of the system. Jarecki profiles a factory worker who is grateful for her job but who mourns, “I'd rather be making toys for Santa,” and soldiers who take false solace in the thought that their “precision-guided systems” (which are actually highly error-prone) will result in fewer civilian casualties. These portraits make a powerful contrast to Jarecki's research on the state and federal officials who reap political support and millions of dollars from their relationships with military corporations and contractors. But refreshingly, Why We Fight doesn't stoop to conspiratorial views. As former Pentagon official Karen Kwiatkowski notes, the military-industrial complex doesn't cause war, but fosters “a willingness to go to war” -- and a willingness to lie to the American public to get us there.
Several elegant story arcs demonstrate the human costs of our militarized social and economic systems, including that of Wilton Sekzer, a Vietnam War vet who lost a son in the World Trade Center attacks. Although during his service Sekzer had lost faith in the Southeast Asian conflict, he initially clings to the notion that the war in Iraq will avenge his son's death. But when the supposed al-Qaeda–Saddam connection disappears in a puff of smoke, Sekzer is enraged, despairing, consumed by doubt -- and more determined than ever to examine his own motivations and those of his country in fighting wars.
Jarecki also speaks to everyday Iraqis who first greeted the occupation with hope, then began to condemn it. He talks to a young American man, bereft of family and financial support who joins the U.S. armed forces, and he speaks to scores of Americans who mull over the question, why do we fight? “Freedom!” blurt out many respondents before they begin to puzzle it over. “Well …” they say, and then a multitude of answers begin to tumble out: Money; Oil; To protect ourselves; We really shouldn't; I don't know. For the young recruit, to have a home, education, and the financial security he can't get elsewhere. For Sekzer, out of agonized loss and a need for vengeance. For the soldiers, to do a job well, to strike a blow for the downtrodden, to live out the ideals of this country. For state officials seeking jobs and approval from constituents, it means survival; for those at the highest echelons of power, it means financial gain. We all buy in to this system, Jarecki seems to say -- but some pay with their lives, others with their souls.
For all its strongly argued condemnation of those at the top, Why We Fight is acutely interested in moments of doubt and second-guessing -- in Sekzer's dawning realization of the tenuousness of the al-Qaeda–Iraq connection, in Eisenhower's own transition from a military man to an advocate for peace, in U.S. citizens' grappling with the incongruence between our rhetorical ideals and our economic and geopolitical realities. Unlike Syriana's solipsistic mirroring of our pessimism and confusion or The Power of Nightmares's reductive certitude, Why We Fight hovers between argument and the inquiry embedded in its title. It provides the perfect place from which we can contemplate what many of the brave individuals in the film struggle with -- the fine line between knowing and not knowing what is right and what may be terribly wrong.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.