`Why We Fight' has both heat and light

FILM

Documentary examines America's fighting impulse

FilmColumn

February 04, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Maryland's chapter of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities presents the Baltimore premiere of Why We Fight, winner of the 2005 Sundance Grand Jury Prize for documentaries, Monday at 7 p.m. at the Charles Theatre, as part of a program called "Securing Iraq."

The director, Eugene Jarecki, who fashioned a brilliant expose of American foreign affairs with The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002), outdoes his previous achievement with Why We Fight. This unique examination of the American way of war is one of the few political films that's prismatic, not dogmatic or polemical. Centering on the rationale for invading Iraq, it's a topical, iconoclastic documentary with the warmth and pace of a first-rate personal essay.

Jarecki interviews men and women across the social-political spectrum, from longtime critics of American conduct like Gore Vidal to crafters of neoconservative policy like Richard Perle, and from bomber pilots proud of their missions to battlefield and Pentagon veterans who question or regret past service. Jarecki treats each figure respectfully. He hopes to catalyze public discussion, not shut it down. So it's all the more devastating when his movie coheres into a persuasive critique of what President Dwight D. Eisenhower dubbed the "military-industrial complex."

Jarecki ultimately paints America's defense establishment and arms industry -- and those who provide it with votes in Congress and rationales for war in think tanks -- as the basis of an American imperialism that wreaks havoc with international stability and our own domestic values. Was he surprised that a beloved Republican general and president became the hero of his movie?

"Eisenhower becomes more remarkable the more you look at him," says Jarecki on the phone from New York. "He evolved enormously between his tenure as a five-star general and his tenure as a president. For me he became a messenger from the grave. He warned us that public policy could become captive to the military-industrial complex" -- a group that prizes its own continued growth over national needs.

Jarecki says, "When you talk to everyday Americans, particularly those in the military, their answers to the question why we fight are understandable -- they make a lot of sense on an interpersonal level. When you then go into more privy spaces, such as the Pentagon, the reasons become far more textured, and have nothing to do with what everyday Americans think they are. The gulf between the aspirations of everyday Americans and the nuts and bolts of national defense represent the democratic crisis that Eisenhower saw coming over 40 years ago.

"Beginning with John McCain, many of the people we talk to in the film come from the Right. My goal was always to interview engaged, thoughtful and passionate men and women with firsthand information and experience. I hoped to put on screen the kind of dialogue I hoped to engender in the audience. I didn't want to force any position on my viewers. I wanted to create an open discourse in which they could come to their own conclusions."

The moviemaker will discuss his film Monday night with Dr. Larry Korb, who was assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration, and Erik Gustafson, a Gulf War veteran and director of the Education for Peace in Iraq Center. Jarecki looks forward to it. "Unlike someone like myself, who comes open and eager to learn but is an outsider," says Jarecki, "Korb can criticize the defense establishment from an insider's perspective. He has fought to make the processes that form policy more transparent."

Tickets -- $20 (or $10 for seniors and students) -- can be purchased at the door or online at www.thecharles.com.

Annapolis, Pa.

When Annapolis lost the filming of a movie called Annapolis to Pennsylvania because that state had just passed a tax-break program to lure moviemakers, it focused the attention of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich and Dennis Castleman, his assistant secretary for tourism, film and the arts, on the dwindling number of TV and movie productions made in Maryland. Along with Maryland Film Office director Jack Gerbes, they visited top executives and craftsmen in Los Angeles, including Baltimore native Tom Rothman, co-chairman of 20th Century Fox.

One result is Senate Bill 215. It would establish not a tax break, but wage rebates up to $25,000 for employees of Maryland-based productions who earn less than $1 million and pay taxes in Maryland. The sum of all rebates would not exceed $2 million per production. If the program passes, Castleman said yesterday, "the $60 [million] or $70 million in direct spending that a single major film" brings on location would compensate many times over for the $6 million that would be allocated for the grants in the state budget.

Cinema Sundays

This weekend, Cinema Sunday at the Charles presents In the Realms of the Unreal, which Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman calls "a singular and haunting experience. It's a documentary that animates, in every sense, the mysterious world of Henry Darger, an impoverished recluse who spent years living in a dingy cramped room in Chicago," then died in 1973 and "left behind a novel of 15,000 pages illustrated by 300 paintings of beautiful and astonishing weirdness."

Dakota Fanning narrates the film -- an apt and possibly unsettling choice, since Darger created a world of hermaphroditic (often naked) little girls enslaved by evil adults. Admission: $15. Coffee and bagels: 9:45 a.m. Showtime: 10:35 a.m. Information: www.cinemasundays.com.

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