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August 13, 2007

An Iraq Documentary Based on Facts, Not Michael Moore-Style Cheekiness


Want to know what caused post-war Iraq to melt down the way it has, without reading any of the innumerable 700-page books that tell the same story? See the new documentary “No End in Sight,” entering wide release this week. Directed by Charles Ferguson, it tells the story both convincingly and very briskly – without the condescending sneer that’s become synonymous with Bush-era political films. 


Ferguson’s film follows the first year after the invasion and the massive bungling that followed, with one authority after another – Democrat and Republican, military and civilian – testifying about the Bush administration making one blunder after another, mostly because they failed to listen to those on the ground.


“No End in Sight” helps get across just how Iraq turned into what is likely an unsalvageable disaster, a fact that is by now completely obvious to anyone who is honest, or at least to anyone not on the editorial staff of the Weekly Standard.

We’re taken through the first few months of the occupation, as the Americans stand by while ancient artifacts are looted, violence begins cresting and civil authority begins breaking down. Then, in what was ultimately the war’s most disastrous decision, Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) Chairman Paul Bremer disbands the Iraqi army, leading almost directly to the creation of the Sunni insurgency.


Other disastrous decisions include the staffing of CPA with GOP political hacks, including (in one anecdote) the 20-something daughter of a Bush contributor being put in charge of directing car traffic in Baghdad, and a series of instances in which the people on the ground in Iraq were overruled by people in Washington who had never been to Iraq, knew nothing about the Middle East or post-war construction and did not speak a word of Arabic.


A litany of books making all the same points have been released in the last few years, including Thomas Ricks’s “Fiasco,” David Corn and Michael Isikoff’s “Hubris” and James Fallows’s “Blind Into Baghdad.” Anyone who has read them will know the story by now. Still, it’s refreshing to actually see the people involved tell the stories of what went wrong – especially people who were actually there. You can see the frustration in the eyes of a man like Col. Paul Hughes, who clearly wanted to do right by the Iraqis and was prevented from doing so by clueless bureaucrats.

There’s another thing that’s refreshing about “No End in Sight”. It’s missing the cheekiness, the preaching-to-the-choir certainty, the preening, the shallow attempts at humor and the ethically questionable editing choices that audiences have come to expect from political documentaries, thanks to the foul influence of Michael Moore and his numerous imitators.


While Ferguson is interested in telling the story of how the Bushies bungled the occupation, what he’s not interested in doing is making larger pronouncements about every American political disaster of the past century, or of tying the Iraq war either to some deficiency in the American character, or to mysterious, sinister ulterior motives. Contrast this with Moore, who laughably alleged in "Fahrenheit 9/11" that the U.S. really invaded Afghanistan not because of Bin Laden, but over a pipeline – one that was never actually built.


The success of Moore’s last few films have led to a series of documentaries seemingly aimed at getting urban liberal audiences to have their exact political opinions spewed directly back at them, so that they can see a treatment of complex political issues without being challenged in any way whatsoever. 


This rampant self-congratulation has even started to spill over into action-adventure features. The almost universally-praised "The Bourne Ultimatum" continued the trend that every major Hollywood action-adventure movie has to "commentate on current events" by including both 1) a torture scene and 2) a cackling bureaucrat villain obviously modeled on Dick Cheney.

While “No End in Sight” will certainly serve to reinforce – correctly – most of the viewpoints of its viewers, the audience I saw it with laughed derisively at Cheney and Rumsfeld every time they appeared on screen. It doesn’t make cheap shots, and not a single moment of it is argued dishonestly or in bad faith.

“Can’t America do better than this?” asks a soldier who served in Iraq, in the film’s closing moments. That’s a question that infuses the heart of “No End in Sight”, and it’s one that Moore, a man more invested in showing just how much better every other country is – would never even think to ask.


© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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