Like a dictator’s statue in a grandiose plaza, the Iraq War can be seen and hated from various angles. Some filmmakers have loathed it through the eyes of US soldiers (in Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland), others from the viewpoint of Iraqi civilians (My Country, My Country and Iraq in Fragments). These documentarians observe the war from ground level. Charles Ferguson, who wrote, produced and directed the invaluable No End in Sight, hates the war from a novel perspective. He looks at it from the top, or as close to it as he can get.
At telling moments in No End in Sight, an inserted title will dryly explain that Ferguson failed to secure an interview with this or that subject: Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Paul Bremer. But here are some of the people who did talk to him: Gen. Jay Garner, who ostensibly ran Iraq for a few weeks in 2003 as director of the short-lived Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA); Ambassador Barbara Bodine, in charge of Baghdad for ORHA; Col. Paul Hughes, director of strategic policy for the occupation (2003); Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell; and Robert Hutchings, chairman of the National Intelligence Council (2003-05).
Ferguson relies on other sorts of witnesses as well (journalists, academics, soldiers, Iraqi officials) and a dense compilation of archival footage that ranges in effect from absurdity (Rumsfeld’s news conferences) to horror. But it’s the well-credentialed informants who establish the character of No End in Sight, by means of their privileged knowledge of the war and their shared experience of having been overruled by the Cheney-Rumsfeld inner circle. These are the people who weren’t listened to. By adopting their perspective, Ferguson unquestionably gives a slanted, partial view of the war–but one that is indispensable and peculiarly damning.
The peculiarity is evident in the way Ferguson allots his screen time. Although No End in Sight recounts more than twenty years of history, from the Iran-Iraq war to the present, by far the longest section of the film covers a period of just four months, from January 20 to May 23, 2003. On the first of those dates, while preparing to invade, Bush assigned responsibility for postwar Iraq to the Pentagon, which would act through the newly created ORHA. On the latter date, Paul Bremer of the even newer Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) finished undoing everything that ORHA had been trying to achieve.
ORHA had begun assembling an interim Iraqi government. CPA dismissed the attempt. ORHA had sought to work with whatever Iraqi managerial class it could locate. CPA effectively got rid of all trained personnel by banning Baath Party members from public employment. ORHA had been registering members of the Iraqi army with the aim of organizing a police force and national guard. On May 23, the CPA disbanded the army, plunging into desperation the families of some 400,000 now-jobless men with guns. In Ferguson’s eyes, the history of the Iraq War is essentially a story about these early, rotten decisions, which by the end of May 2003, he argues, had already consigned the country to chaos and civil war.
How does Ferguson go about making this case? A typical sequence (reconstructed here in approximation) might begin with archival footage of the looted National Museum and the immolated National Archive, with a voiceover narration (spoken by Campbell Scott) setting forth the bare facts of the event. Iraqis in the ruins cry out the heartbroken commentary. From this setup, Ferguson cuts to interviews with Hughes, who testifies that US troops were made to stand by (“There was no order to establish martial law”), and with Barbara Bodine, who makes it clear that this idleness was deliberate policy. (“The word came from Washington not to interfere with the looting. There was to be no police work.”) You see further images of buildings being ripped apart, machinery being carted away in the streets, fires raging, people sifting through rubble. A journalist, in this case Nir Rosen, sums up the situation: “Guys with guns took over–and they were the Iraqi guys with guns.” Then comes a clip of Rumsfeld cutting up at a news conference: “Stuff happens.”
The method is almost rhythmic in its regularity: sobriety from the voiceover, aptness and force from the archival images, quiet anger from the informants and then a punch line of utter obliviousness from Rumsfeld. Applying this formula to the period that most concerns him, Ferguson reviews each major decision made by the White House–to toss aside the State Department’s postwar planning, to occupy Iraq with scarcely enough troops to secure Peoria, to allow Baghdad to be stripped to the walls–and establishes two critical points: The outcome was catastrophic, and the catastrophe was predicted.
But perhaps I should say Ferguson conducts this review for almost every decision. The six months preceding January 2003, when the “intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” (as the Downing Street memo put it), get only a blink of screen time compared with the four months that followed. Granted, the film acknowledges Bush’s haste to make war against Saddam Hussein; but acknowledgment is not prosecution. No End in Sight provides scant information about the Bush Administration’s knowing lies and none at all about critical matters like the UN weapons-inspection program or the international movement that warned against invasion. (Some correct predictions, evidently, are less respectable than others.) Saddam’s crimes, by contrast, take the screen in vivid detail. In this way, the film treats as plausible the first and most disastrous decision.
This approach isn’t entirely unexpected. A first-time filmmaker who in his other life was a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Ferguson is most interested in studying how a clique of top officials, lacking in military experience and self-isolated from dissenting opinion, made mistake after mistake in implementing policy. He is not interested in thinking about a much wider range of people–including Council on Foreign Relations types, prominent journalists and current frontrunners for the Democratic presidential nomination–who acquiesced to the bunglers as they prepared for war.
Not that I’m taking names. I just want to point out that the emphasis conforms to the analysis. If you believe, as Ferguson does, that ORHA personnel were “trying to save a country” (so the voiceover states), then it makes sense to blame the insurgency largely on the CPA’s blunders and to date its effective start as the bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad on August 19, 2003. But if you believe that the very existence of ORHA was part of the problem, then you might say the insurgency started much earlier, on April 28 and 30, before Bremer even landed in Iraq. On those dates, US soldiers fired into crowds of demonstrators in Falluja, killing at least thirteen people and wounding many more. No End in Sight discusses the later, better-known upheavals in that city, but it does not mention these April protests and deaths, which perhaps had some small influence on anti-American sentiment. To speak of them, even in passing, might suggest that the occupation was doomed from the start–or at the latest from within three weeks of the US conquest of Baghdad.
All of which is merely to say of Ferguson: an interesting slant makes for interesting blind spots. I would judge his film not by its peculiarity but by its power to condemn, which it exercises with stunning authority. No End in Sight convicts the Bush Administration more clearly, specifically and forcefully than any previous documentary has done, and more wrenchingly than any book could do. No matter how deeply you read in the growing literature, you will not receive what this film offers: the frustration and sorrow on Barbara Bodine’s face, the ragged edge in Paul Hughes’s voice, the bafflement in Jay Garner’s eyes as he thinks back on his betrayal. Ferguson brings you face to face with the actors in this terrible history, as they recount how Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice went about slaughtering their own soldiers and devastating the people of Iraq.
Shall we say that mistakes were made? No End in Sight records so many of them, which were all so obvious, that suspicious minds might wonder if they weren’t committed deliberately. Put yourself into Cheney’s head, if you dare, and imagine the advantages. A permanently chaotic Iraq might require a permanent US military presence, justifying unbounded wartime powers for the President and providing an inexhaustible supply of Jenkins’s ears to wave at Iran. Maybe the ruling clique was so cold-blooded as to want this civil war. Or maybe, as Ferguson suggests, the problem was just that America’s political class ceded power to the arrogantly stupid.
No End in Sight begins its national release simultaneously at New York’s Film Forum and the E Street Cinema in Washington. Please send everyone you know to see it.
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Short Takes: At the heart of Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern’s documentary The Devil Came on Horseback is an anguished question by the film’s narrator, Brian Steidle: What information would be enough to move the American people to demand an end to the genocide in Darfur? Steidle, who retired at a young age from the Marines, provided much terrifying evidence himself in 2005, when he made public a cache of photographs he’d taken in Sudan while working as an observer for the African Union. The Devil Came on Horseback shows (often by restaging) how he came to witness the killing and acquire so many pictures of it, how he became an activist for saving Darfur and how today he presses on, though dismayed by America’s continuing inertia. The documentary, despite its occasional arty flourishes, is essentially a vehicle for carrying Steidle’s information to still more people in the hope that they will finally compel action. Released by International Film Circuit, this film is an act of conscience–and the bearer of some of the most grisly images I’ve ever seen.
The Sugar Curtain, by Cuban expatriate Camila Guzmán Urzúa, is political documentary in an altogether different mode: intimate, nostalgic, bittersweet. It revisits in pictures and memories the Cuba where she grew up in the 1970s and ’80s–a place and time she recalls as paradisiacal–and tours what little remains of it today. Some of her childhood friends have stayed on; most have left. All share Urzúa’s thoughtful, sorrowful love for a golden era that was real to them but turned out to be a Soviet-financed fantasy. Now enjoying a brief theatrical run in New York, appropriately enough at the Pioneer Theater, The Sugar Curtain is distributed by First Run/Icarus Films.
Meanwhile, in outer space: One of my favorite actors, Cillian Murphy, is on a rocket ship between Venus and Mercury, zooming toward a blaze of glory in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. His mission: to save our planet by reigniting its dying star. I’m sure somebody will soon explain the metaphor, revealing that Sunshine is really about the Iraq War, Darfur or maybe Cuba’s lost illusions. All I saw was a glossy, gleaming sci-fi clunker in which humanity’s main problem can be solved by dropping a bomb.