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in Filmmaking
on Jan 24, 2007

Now that both public and the politicians are denouncing the war in Iraq, documentaries like Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight, premiering in Sundance’s Documentary Competition, are simply essential. The inevitable withdrawal of U.S. troops is sure to prompt attacks by the real “bitter enders” –- administration officials and neo-cons who will pin the war’s failures on an American lack of resolve – and Ferguson’s sober and straightforward documentary is the necessary rebuttal. Recalling that old piece of screenplay advice, “There are no third act problems,” Ferguson takes us back to the run-up to the war and the months following the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s government to reveal how a breakdown in rational U.S. foreign policy planning allowed the violence that now plagues Iraq to take root and grow.

To anyone who keeps up with the news, much of Ferguson’s argument will seem familiar. Too few troops were dedicated to the country’s peacekeeping after the end of combat operations; CPA Head Paul Bremer disbanded the Iraqi Army and embarked on a policy of “De-Bathification,” ensuring large numbers of angry and jobless Iraqis to fuel the insurgency. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps were not given orders to prevent the looting of the country’s infrastructure and cultural landmarks, thus allowing a demoralized atmosphere of lawlessness and despair to take root. And while No End in Sight contains plenty of new (at least to me) details about the execution of the war and occupation (a tale of a just-graduated Georgetown University student with no experience in municipal planning who is assigned the job of designing the traffic grid for all of Baghdad would be hilarious if it wasn’t also deeply depressing), its strength is its meticulous documenting of the way in which politics and neo-conservative ideology trumped the government’s established foreign policy decision-making apparatus.

No End in Sight is Ferguson’s first feature. (Check out Ann Thompson’s article on Ferguson and the making of the movie.) With a Ph.D in Political Science from MIT, Ferguson is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. (He is also co-founder of Vermeer Technologies, a tech firm whose sale enabled him to finance this $2 million documentary himself.) His connections obviously granted him access to officials who might not have spoken in another anti-war doc. In addition to journalists, political scientists, and Iraqi parliament members, interviewees include Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former Chief of Staff; Richard Armitage, former Deputy Secretary of State; Paul Hughes, Director of the Strategic Policy Office of the CPA; and Walter Slocombe, the Senior Advisor for National Security and Defense to the CPA. It’s Hughes and Slocombe who have the most dramatic face-off in the film, with Ferguson cutting back and forth between them as Hughes assails Slocombe and his boss, Paul Bremer, for the rash decision to disband the Iraqi Army. Throughout this movie one is struck by how desperate officials like Hughes and, particularly, Jay Garner, the general who was in charge of the reconstruction of Iraq for a few short months before Bremer was installed, seem to tell their side of the story.

Director Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) is an Executive Producer of the film, and there are elements of his style (a narrative told through dramatically lit talking heads and archival footage) here. Ferguson has said he reached out to Gibney in the early stages of making his film for some first-time director guidance, and the film is as smoothly compelling as Enron. Even if you think you know this material, I really recommend you check it out.

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