Friday, August 24, 2007
Charles Ferguson comes to film with a background in information technology and after having served as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. His approach is less concerned with finding a clever cinematic approach to the material and more interested in trying to find the best, most cogent way to present a dense amount of complex material.
The war in Iraq has already undergone considerable media scrutiny. So Ferguson doesnt really uncover anything new or surprising. But he organizes the information in a highly effective and clear-sighted manner, giving context to what happened. He also tries to avoid partisan politics by having the material delivered in a calm, even-handed manner by narrator Campbell Scott. But since many of the people who are criticizedDonald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, Paul Wolfowitzdeclined to be interviewed for the film, no one really presents or represents the opposite side or is there to defend any of the decisions made by the Bush Administration.
L. Paul Bremer and General Jay Garner in No End in Sight (Magnol
Yet Ferguson is so relentless in his pursuit of information that the sum total of what he presents has a powerful impact. Plus he does try to talk to as many people as he can to provide insight into what was happening in the months following the now famous "Mission Accomplished" speech and photo op. One of the main things that comes through in Ferguson's film--and what emerges as the real tragedy--is that things could have worked, things could have turned out differently. The main feeling you sense from many of the people interviewed is frustration, the frustration felt by people who saw what was being done wrong and wanted to correct it yet they were unable to get their voices heard.
But Ferguson lets these voices speak loud and clear. General Jay Garner and Col. Paul Hughes of ORHA (Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance) sum up the frustration as well as the good intentions. They repeatedly cite examples of where they felt the administration failed to listen to them and with disastrous result. They also recount how young people, fresh out of college but with parents making large political campaign contributions, got assignments that should have been given to people with more appropriate experience. Ambassador Barbara Bodine is another strong voice. She was initially in charge of Baghdad for the U.S. occupation. She discusses her frustration with what she saw as both incompetence and a lack of preparation. At one point, Ferguson shows a clip of Donald Rumsfeld's press conference where he makes jokes about reports of looting in Iraq are all showing the same guy running off with the same vase. "You think," he says, "my goodness were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country."
But it wasn't just vases, it was the looting of Iraq's museums and libraries and Bodine says, "I think that was probably the day we lost the Iraqis. That's when it became very clear that this liberation didn't really have anything to do with the average Iraqi. We [ORHA] had done a list of twenty sites that we thought needed to be protecte. Historical, cultural, artistic, religious, and we had provided that but it really made no difference whatsoever."
We see Iraqi citizens and scholars outraged and in tears over the irreparable loss of cultural and historical artifacts, and that's on top of the untold number of civilian casualties the Iraqis suffered in the war. The film shows how the people who seemed to have the best experience and the most insight into the situation were removed and replaced by people like L. Paul Bremer who had no middle east or military experience. Ferguson tries to lay out what he sees as the three fatally flawed decisions Bremer made. One, his decision to stop the interim Iraqi government. Two, the de-Ba'athification that purged some 50,000 members of the Ba'ath party from Iraq's infrastructure. And three, disbanding the Iraq army, which essentially meant firing a half million armed men.
First time filmmaker Charles Ferguson (Magnolia)
Since Ferguson couldnt get people like Bremer or Rumsfeld to appear on camera, he uses a lot of news footage and press conferences. Rumsfeld's press conferences in particular show us the public face that the Bush Administration was presenting to the world. So to hear Rumsfeld trivialize the looting and other things that were going on is infuriating. It also helps clarify how just his attitude contributed to the problems. In one press conference, we hear the Washington press corps laughing at Rumsfeld joke about the looter with a vase. Ferguson also seems to be indicting the media and Ferguson's unstated question is why wasn't the media pushing for more information and questioning the information they were being given?
Although No End in Sight speaks mostly to insiders and the media we do also hear from people like Seth Moulton, a Marine who saw action in Iraq. He shares his thoughts about where some of the problems stemmed from: "Personally I feel the war would be going differently if you had leadership that really understood number one what it's like to be on the ground, had actually served in the armed forces, and number two had a really good managerial grasp of making this thing work."
The film then explains that "the senior administration officials who overruled the military and state department had no experience with postwar reconstruction efforts and little or no military experience."
This goes to another one of the problems about the Bush Administration. Not only did those making decisions not have the kind of experience that might of helped them but they intensified their problems by closing out those people who did.
No End in Sight (unrated) is not a very cinematic documentary; its essentially talking heads. But the information and the presentation of the information is so powerful that its something people should make an effort to see.
Companion viewing: Fog of War, Uncovered: The Whole Truth about the Iraq War, The Control Room -----