Film Reviews: Wednesday, August 29, 2007
You Don’t Know Iraq

No End in Sight: The best documentary so far this year.


No End in Sight is the first movie about Iraq that changed my thinking on the subject. I knew from the start that the invasion was a bad idea, but I was on the fence about keeping our troops there. The film convinced me that we need to get out now and that somebody currently running for president needs to say the same thing. Our continuing presence there is only stifling Iraqi civil institutions and preventing them from taking control of their own country. Pulling out may worsen things in the short term, but staying there won’t improve things in the long term.
Not that this White House would know anything about long-term thinking. The movie doesn’t make the case that the war was morally wrong or based on bogus reasons. Instead, it presses home the point that the war was mismanaged. (That’s the term the filmmakers would probably use. I’d substitute “run by a bunch of stoned chimps who shouldn’t have been trusted with planning a girl’s Sweet 16 party.”) First-time filmmaker/software millionaire/think-tank research fellow Charles Ferguson directs in a talking-heads style familiar to viewers of Frontline.
Yet the heads here are a parade of witnesses who make one damning revelation after another. Rather than well-known pundits or high-profile liberal critics of the war, the film interviews insiders with no obvious rhetorical ax to grind: administration officials, military officers, and foreign reporters and U.S. soldiers who were on the ground in Iraq (as opposed to most of the White House strategists, who largely stayed in their offices in D.C.). Colin Powell isn’t one of them, but his chief of staff Col. Lawrence Wilkerson and former Deputy Sec. of State Richard Armitage both testify as to how the State Department’s advice was ignored.
The usual suspects (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz) come off as bumbling clowns, and former head of the provisional government, L. Paul Bremer, receives a well-deserved roasting for abolishing both the Ba’ath Party and the Iraqi military. Ignoring the advice of every regional expert, he brought society to a halt by crippling the civil service and pissed off hundreds of thousands of suddenly unemployed armed men. Maybe the biggest surprise is how much of a bit player President Bush is in this movie’s retelling. Then again, maybe it isn’t a shock — chief executives who can’t be bothered to read one-page summaries of military intelligence reports are often marginalized.
Revelations like these are around every corner here. Ambassador Barbara Bodine reports that U.S. troops were specifically ordered not to protect culturally important sites in the invasion’s first days, while Baghdad’s traffic authority wound up in the hands of a Georgetown girl fresh out of college with no background in municipal engineering. The phrase “spoke no Arabic and had no experience in the Middle East” crops up again and again, describing the officials who took charge of Iraq, overruling the Americans who had those skills. Col. Paul Hughes emerges as the most forceful voice here, detailing how his office’s work managing the transition for Iraq’s government was swept aside by Bremer and his flunkies during the latter’s four-day stay in Baghdad. While No End in Sight doesn’t reinvent documentary cinema techniques, it builds a powerful case that Bush and company won the war only to lose the peace. For nation builders as well as filmmakers, good intentions are worth little without good execution.

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