Hollywood has taken baby steps when it comes to addressing the 4 1/2 -year-old Iraq war. Among independently produced documentaries, though, there now exists a veritable cottage industry devoted to films about the invasion, occupation and insurgency. Most of these have assumed the form of intimate, on-the-ground portraits ("Occupation: Dreamland" and "Iraq in Fragments," to name two of the most valuable). "No End in Sight," the latest Iraq documentary, is the first to attempt a detailed historical overview and probably the only one with the potential to reach across partisan lines, a true rarity in the sphere of political filmmaking.
Written, produced and directed by first-time documentarian Charles Ferguson, a political scientist with a doctorate from MIT and experience at the Brookings Institution, "No End in Sight" packs the enraging cumulative punch of a "J'accuse," but its tone could hardly be more sober. As lucid as it is level-headed, the film has a clear thematic focus -- what went wrong in Iraq -- and it identifies the catastrophic turning points with steely precision and a wealth of context. The result, narrated in a grave monotone by Campbell Scott, is a catalog of horrors so absurd and relentless it verges on farce, or Greek tragedy.
Ferguson doesn't wrestle with the morality of the war and only briefly acknowledges its basis in misinformation and fake intelligence. Whatever your position, pro- or antiwar (many of the film's talking heads in principle belonged to the former camp, and some still do), the point here is that the actions of the administration in the early days of the occupation ensured that the war would be longer, costlier and bloodier than it needed to be.
The expert witnesses include White House insiders (former State Department officials Richard L. Armitage and Lawrence Wilkerson), diplomatic and military personnel who were in Iraq during those critical months (Col. Paul Hughes, a strategic planner for the Coalition Provisional Authority; Barbara Bodine, ambassador in charge of Baghdad) and writers and scholars who have followed the story from the outset (George Packer, Samantha Power, James Fallows).
The big picture that emerges is one of staggering callousness and incompetence. The prime culprits are former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (whose flippant press conference maxims -- "I don't do quagmires," "Stuff happens" -- sound even more chilling in light of the seemingly boundless behind-the-scenes ineptitude); Paul Wolfowitz, his deputy at the time; and L. Paul Bremer III, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Time and again, Rumsfeld and company failed to consult and even actively ignored military strategists, postwar reconstruction experts and diplomats familiar with the region. Ferguson devotes a sizable portion of the film to chronicling Bremer's calamitous errors in judgment during a delicate transitional period -- his most disastrous misstep, according to the film, was to disband the Iraqi military, leaving hundreds of thousands of armed men humiliated and unemployed -- a state of affairs that, combined with the widespread availability of weapons in lawless post-invasion Iraq, directly fueled the insurgency.
"No End in Sight," which gets across the sheer scale and depth of this appalling failure in 100 minutes, is a model of concision and clarity. Ferguson is less a polemicist than a historian, and the power of his film has much to do with its calm, stark emphasis on facts that speak for themselves.
"No End in Sight." Not rated. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. At Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd. (323) 848-3500; the Landmark, 10850 W. Pico Blvd. (at Westwood Blvd.), West L.A. (310) 281-8233, Laemmle's One Colorado, 42 Miller Alley (inside plaza, Fair Oaks Avenue at Union Street), Pasadena, (626) 744-1224, and Regal/Edwards University Town Center 6, 4245 Campus Drive, Irvine, (949)854-8818