Eugene Jarecki's ''Why We Fight" borrows its title from the classic World War II series of propaganda films made by Frank Capra, but the implicit meaning of the words couldn't be more different. For Capra, that title was an explanation both patient and stern. For Jarecki, it's a warning.
Viewing America's involvement in Iraq through the long lens of post-World War II military policy, ''Why We Fight" is an agit-doc of unusual depth. It has a point -- that the primary business of America over the past half-century has been waging war -- and it supports that point with nuance, research, and a willingness to hear the other side of the argument. As such, this is very much the movie ''Fahrenheit 9/11" should have been, and an experience audiences of every political conviction need to contend with.
Jarecki starts the ball rolling with the 1961 speech Dwight Eisenhower made as he was leaving the presidency, warning of the buildup of the military-industrial complex. ''This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience," Ike says. ''We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications."
From this seed grows the film's argument: that we're in Iraq not because of 9/11 or to protect freedom but because the economy of American military self-interest demands continual new fronts. Jarecki lines up some interesting ducks. You'd expect to see Charles Lewis from the Center for Public Integrity and Karen Kwiatkowski, a long-time Pentagon desk officer who quit the Iraq desk disturbed at the influx of nonmilitary neo-conservatives, but the appearance of right-wing think-tankers and policy architects William Kristol and Richard Perle is more of a surprise. ''Why We Fight" lets them have their say, the better to build its case of administrative imperialism run amok.
This all sounds rather dry. It's not. Jarecki's passion enlivens the stream of historical images and statistics, and he knows the persuasive value of an image (cue the video footage of Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein in 1983). His use of regular folks, too, is more complex and respectful than Michael Moore's ham-handed tactics. Where Moore's cameras followed Lila Lipscomb around until he got the grieving-mother tears he wanted, ''Why We Fight" gives equal weight to the stages that Wilton Sekzer, a New York cop who lost a son on 9/11, passes through. The film values the man's primal need for vengeance as much as it does his bitter, betrayed sense of clarity when he learns of the Bush administration's faulty intelligence on Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction.
Jarecki talks to the pilots who dropped the first bombs on Baghdad and to a kid signing up for military duty; he visits a Baghdad morgue in which 90 percent of the bodies are civilians, many of them children. He reminds us that our vice president is a former military contractor and oil executive, and he makes the perfectly cogent point that when war is profitable you tend to see more of it. ''We don't like to think of ourselves as a militant nation," says the CPI's Lewis, ''but the fact is we are."
''Why We Fight" overreaches in places and could be more focused as a whole, and it has an ax to grind. So does right-wing talk radio; so does Moore. The difference is that Jarecki doesn't sell himself as an entertainer -- he knows the facts are ''entertaining" enough, and he's happy to keep out of their way. (The filmmaker isn't to be confused with his brother, ''Capturing the Friedmans" director Andrew Jarecki, although I'd be interested to know what their mother sprinkled on their Cream of Wheat when they were kids.)
''Why We Fight" was first seen a full year ago at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival (it won the documentary Grand Jury Prize), and it has taken much too long for the movie to show up in theaters. Nevertheless, if the national discussion on Iraq has moved on to issues of occupation, election, and rebuilding, the larger issues framed by this film are hardly going away. ''Why We Fight" stands as a class-act stylistic rebuttal to ''Fahrenheit 9/11" -- it asks questions rather than bludgeons us with ridicule, and it has the grace to hint that we can think for ourselves.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.