The images may be old hat by now: Donald Rumsfeld glad-handing Saddam Hussein in 1983; a bereaved parent feeling bitter over "exploitation" by the government; bombed-out Iraqi hospitals. But Eugene Jarecki's soberly argued Why We Fight, about America's campaign in the Middle East, shares little else with Michael Moore's pageant of rage—and that might not be so good. Whereas Moore traded precision for catharsis, Jarecki has heady political analysis in mind, resulting in a more honest film, but also an honest bummer. Here is the hard-edged critique many have wanted; you'll leave the theater feeling vastly better informed but, in a crucial sense, none the wiser.
Spinning off from Dwight D. Eisenhower's prophetic concept of the "military-industrial complex" and sharing its title with Frank Capra's World War II newsreels, Jarecki's documentary positions the current malaise as one of monolithic trends, the feeding of a war-based economy that employs thousands of blue-collar manufacturers with children to feed in all 50 states. Is there a villain here? Sure—not the PR spinners, or even the terrorists, but the amorphous neocon think tanks producing the theories of American empire that are now being adopted as policy by elected officials. Yet it's hard to fulminate constructively over such a disembodied idea, even harder to imagine a new Mr. Smith coming to Washington to somehow counteract it. Jarecki deserves praise for introducing intellect into a debate characterized by passion; still, if he's right, we shouldn't expect much change at the ballot box or on the battlefield. (Opens Fri; see Now playing for venues.)—Joshua Rothkopf