There are two essential components to the creation of a great documentary—finding the perfect subject, and then successfully communicating the inherent drama of that perfect subject to viewers.
With No End In Sight, first-time director Charles Ferguson has an important subject, perhaps the single most important subject of them all at the moment—America’s war with and continuing quixotic occupation of Iraq. For all its importance though, it’s hardly a novel topic, or anything you haven’t (hopefully) heard a thousand times before: The United States completely fucked up in Iraq, and the long list of mistakes made created far more problems for the U.S. and the Iraqi people than they solved, and both nations will continue to pay for those mistakes for as long as anyone can see.
While many of the complaints will be familiar, gathering them all together like this has a transformative effect on them; no longer are they isolated, but seem to lead one to another like dominoes. In hindsight, you can watch the administration turning victory into defeat, wining Iraq and the goodwill of the people, only to destroy the country’s infrastructure, and creating out of thin air an insurgency that we must then spend the next four years fighting.
The talking heads interviewed have, for the most part, the appearance of objectivity. Ferguson eschews fire-breathing partisans for soldiers, journalists and government officials, but obviously many of them have a variety of axes to grind (Much has been made of the fact that this is an anti-war doc for both supporters of and opponents to the invasion; after all, the film doesn’t spend much time on the morality of the war or even it’s premise, but rather its faulty execution).
Perhaps the biggest “gets” are Richard Armitage, Colin Powell’s State Department second-in-command, who spent the last seven years publicly and privately doing bureaucratic battle with the Cheney/Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz triumvirate, and retired general Jay Garner, the first person charged with Iraq re-construction, before he was booted for L. Paul Bremer.
Since so many of the participants had been previously wronged, there’s a palpable slant to the film, enough so that the administration’s defenders (if there is anyone left in the country who is still defending the administration of the Iraq war) can probably get away with dismissing the whole thing. Text informs us that Bremer, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rusmfeld, Dick Cheney and Condoleeza Rice all refused interviews, which honestly isn’t much of a surprise—Given how picky they are with which members of the chummy Washington media they speak to, why on earth would they participate in interviews with a documentary filmmaker?
And yet these war-runners are all present throughout the film via news footage, and therefore it hardly matters if No End in Sight has the appearance of being unfair or not. The war’s architects and defenders have made their mistakes in public and defended them in public already. We’ve heard their side of things.
Ferguson turns to the public record to gather a greatest hits of dumb statements for use in the film: Bush’s“In the battle of Iraq, the United states and our allies have prevailed” and “Bring ‘em on,” Cheney’s “greeted as liberators” and “last throes,” Rice’s “smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud,” and Rumsfeld’s “I don’t do quagmires,” “ Stuff happens,” “you go to war with the army you have” and a few dozen other wince-inducing statements that seemed wrong when he first uttered them at jokey press conferences, and now sound so much worse after aging a few years.
A great deal of attention is spent on 2003, which is where everything seemed to go wrong. Ferguson focuses on the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, a short-lived agency that was given two months to prepare for the occupation (In World War II, the allies began preparing for the occupation of Germany two years before they went in, Ferguson points out), and was disbanded quite suddenly just as they were beginning to have an impact. They were replaced by to make way for the Coalition Provisional Authority and Bremer, whom, next to Rumsfeld, seems to have been the biggest problem.
Bremer and the Pentagon essentially created the Iraqi insurgency and civil war, Ferguson argues. The war toppled Saddam and his forces, and the U.S. never declared martial law to take over, creating a void. Bremer went on to disband the attempt to create an Iraqi government, disband the Iraqi army and purge Iraq of its previous bureaucracy, essentially getting rid of the countries infrastructure and sending armed, trained, weapon-toting career soldiers into “permanent unemployment.” (These controversial decisions are all in the news again now, as pundits react to revelations in Bush bio Dead Certain and Bremer moves to share blame with Bush on those decisions).
Watching over three years of mistakes unpacked over the course of one hundred minutes like this creates an infuriating, sickening drama—a slow-motion tragedy that took years to unfold sped up to lightning quick boom-boom-boom delivery.
If the cumulative daily reporting of U.S. casualties and turns for the worse in Iraq have begun to numb you, Ferguson’s documentary proves to be a highly effective refresher course in outrage. As the soldier who gets the last word in says, his face turning red and his eyes filling with tears, “You’re telling me that’s the best America can do?…That makes me angry.”