It could be stated that the Middle East war de jure has stoked many to shout out from their modern day windows in proper Howard Beale fashion. Surely, the body politic be it nay or ye can admit that the art, gimmick T-shirts, scripts, Most Wanted card decks, have all lined Carhartts to tailored chinos. There's a sell going down from inside the Mother Ship and sold too at your local farmer's market. Here, we have a film that has the comfort of hindsight to peel back the framework of the wars of yore to present day. Trouble is the tour has an agenda and pleads a case that we've been duped for generations by a masterful government-led PR blitzkrieg. Adding insult to injury, the film proffers that throughout the ages “media” was complicit - even cast as a downright suck-up - when guts and boldness were called for instead. Despite the celebrity narrator and the material carefully chosen (to invert the discussion) to vet the journalists and networks, the final product shortchanges with too much noise and will fail to shock or awe those seeking stimulating objective truths in the art house or any house for that matter.
As the film demonstrates, war is not just fought on the battlefields but also through the outlets that gather facts through a process that is often taken for granted. There is a war of perception at stake and the public must be conscious of it. At first glance, the hope is that the film is going to execute this in a refined manner but somehow gets too cute and the effort backfires. The first half-hour is a cacophony of chatter. Whether it was Sean Penn's sub par reading (what sounded like tax code seminar speak early on found fluidity later in the film) to the exploding visuals numbed by excessive Voice Over. It's too top heavy and just not clean. And then there is Norman Solomon, Award-winning journalist/commentator and author of the source book War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death, who serves as the sole moral compass for the film, and whose stage presence seems slightly rehearsed and viscerally deficient.
With that said, there is a strong amount of research that deserves kudos. Grim footage of the Vietnam War to show what most news organizations (informing the mainstream with a filtered teat) will not. Cruel close-ups of fresh, wide-eyed Marines becoming killers with their bayonets, striking an imaginary enemy in shadowbox fashion, and manning trails to winded soldiers giving the heave-ho to an enemy soldier's body dumped on top of a pile of fallen comrades. There are kids running around soaked in napalm, frightened families "smoked out" of their small huts wearing frightened faces. War is not pretty.
It would be a homerun or at least a triple but then the film goes after the media. Sound bite after pundits sound bite carry out the marching orders of the president of the era. Bush is hit the most. (Surprise!) They ride the "axis of evil" goodie and beat "evil" into the head without any sort of quit. Ditto that with "WMDs", "Stay the course," "Cut and Run" and many others. Feels more like a YouTube ploy than a documentary that has our attention for an hour and change.
Solomon then said that the public is given substandard information to put the images in perspective. Unfortunately, the film does the same. It is too bold and tries to accomplish too much by saying a lot and showing a lot but not seeming to have a cohesive thread to keep it altogether.
Despite the hiccups in execution the film's underlying contention is that the media—in this case portraying domestic flag wavers in FOX, CNN, Viacom, GE to The Washington Post, and so on - had a duty to be on the frontlines and not be bashful when it came to engaging in premeditated warfare a la The Bush Doctrine. Contrast the British media's more intense coverage and journalists are put on their heels. Did every politician, periodical or network employee drink the Kool-Aid and regurgitate again and again? Certainly, Donahue, Jim Lehrer and a couple of lone senators were not the only ones raising eyebrows before Baghdad or Tonkin was taken to task. But if you watch the film one might come to that conclusion.
The filmmakers demonstrate restraint as they avoid terrorizing the audience. In fact, they do deliver with some choice sound bites from the inspirational in Martin Luther King Jr., to chilling tongue-and-cheek nuclear bomb chatter between Nixon and Kissinger inside the White House. What the film accomplishes more than anything is to demand that the interlocutor not sit there before the TV set like Jell-o and instead demand a better product. Read a newspaper and ask questions afterward. But as a piece of work, War Made Easy is trying to preach against a system on which it relies and of which it is an indelible part.
Narrators: Sean Penn
Writers/Directors: Loretta Alper & Jeremy Earp
Producers: Loretta Alper, Andrew Killroy
Running time: 73 min.
Release date: March 14