Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 15, 2006 9:12 pm 
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[Published by The Baltimore Chronicle.]

Why we need this movie

This film by the brother of Andrew, who made the controversial Capturing the Friedmans, has been blasted as an inferior version of the "collage" or "montage" form of documentary, which is to say a documentary that mixes footage from a wide variety of sources. As if "montage" were not the basic element of film. In full grumpy mode, New Yorker film critic David Denby even says it's time to put an end to this kind of documentary altogether:

Isn’t it time to retire the collage method of making documentaries? A phrase or two clipped out of some policy expert’s discourse, followed by a bit of stock footage of jet fighters lined up in rows, followed by some candy-sucking kids hauled by their parents to a convention-hall weapons show, and, wham!, you’ve got an indictment of American militarism and imperialism. Except you don’t; you don’t have much of anything but tawdry film-editing technique.

That's more an example of tawdry film-criticsm technique than of anything in this film. The "collage method" doesn't really denote a distinct category of documentary, and the method isn't objectionable. Even if all the footage of a doc is by the same director/photographer, it's quite likely to include interviews and shots of a lot of different people and places. A historical doc is going to have to use old footage. And how varied the elements in a film are depends on the subject and outlook. Jarecki's subject is a very broad, but also very important one.

What Denby's possibly really annoyed by is Jarecki's blanket opposition to American militarism, which leads the filmmaker to come at his topic from a variety of angles and rely on many and varied voices. He uses not only solid authorities like retired Lt.Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, who observed the cooking of intelligence data in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion ("We elected a defense contractor as vice-president," she also comments); super-patriot and moral stalwart Senator McCain, who has serious reservations about a lot of what the Bush administration does, but jumps when Cheney calls; anti-imperialist polemicist and data-gatherer Chalmers Johnson, who served in the CIA and has a devastatingly comprehensive sense of the US's pursuit of global dominance; a slightly wacky but often truth-telling ranter, the venerable Gore Vidal; a bereaved New York ex-cop who feels stung for getting his WTC-victim son's name on a big bomb dropped in Iraq and then immediately afterwards seeing Bush on TV claim he'd never said Saddam had WMD's; Bush making that claim; Rumsfeld and Cheney and Richard Perle cynically fudging; a Kellogg, Brown, and Root huckster at a military trade fair cynically hawking his services; a 23-year-old who's joining the army for the perennial reason that he's got nothing better to do; a variety of Iraqis who've seen the "collateral damage" first hand, like by having their wives and children killed and maimed. This is not a smart president, a rustic in a kufiyya says, and this bomb that hit my house was not a 'smart missile.' If this mélange of voices is the "collage method," it's a damned effective and relevant one.

The fact is that Jarecki isn't a stunning, in-your-face polemicist like Michael Moore, who can carry off even wilder and more provocative "collages," though Denby didn't like Fahrenheit 9/11 one bit either, even while acknowledging its effectiveness. Films like these are too political for the politics of critics reviewing them to be anything but highly relevant. If you're strongly opposed, like myself, both to US aims at global domination and to the current administration's uniquely blatant and illegal ways of pursuing them, you're likely to feel, as I do, that Jarecki's film can only shed light on a subject that is often clouded.

How that clouding goes on is one of Jarecki's many relevant topics: he chronicles the way the media and Congress were deceived -- and deceiving -- in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. How We Fight's "collage" gives ample evidence of lying, prevarication, and cynicism on the parts of Messrs Bush, Rumsfeld, Perle, et al. Is cutting in their blatant lies another example of "tawdry film-editing technique," like the pictures of delighted parents and children at outdoor displays of new bombers?

For those of us who've been concerned for a while about what's going on with US policy, there's undeniably a sense of déjâ vu at times in Why We Fight; but that's because what Jarecki presents is historically correct. He starts out notably, and bookends his film, with Dwight D. Eisenhower's speech when he retired from office in 1961 warning about the "military-industrial complex." Originally the speech writers included Congress in the nexus, and the film corrects that omission by dwelling on the essential role of Congress, adding that there is a new element, the think tanks, which formulate policy more than the executive branch now -- policy that promotes war, because its aim is, on the right, global dominance. If a bomb has parts from every single state, as Chalmers Johnson says, then representatives of every state will have a stake in its continued manufacture. "When war becomes this profitable," he says, "reasons are always going to be found to start a new one."

Much has been made of Wilton Sekzer, the retired NYC cop, who wanted revenge after 9/11 and got a 20,000 pound bomb inscribed "in loving memory" of his son who died in the WTC. Sekzer is an average Joe, and a profoundly sympathetic man. There's no questioning his patriotism and faith in his leaders -- till he got burned. Some have said Sekzer is out of place in this film, that he grabs too much attention. Others say he is the heart and soul of it. In fact he, like the young recruit whose mom has died and who doesn't have the motivation or maybe the funds to continue school and therefore joins the army, is just another of the human pieces in a vast inhuman puzzle for which Chalmers Johnson has the documentation in 2006 and to which Ike had the key in 1961.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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