The shatteringly riveting, makes-your-blood-boil documentary No End in Sight plays like expert witness testimony at a trial of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz for their planning of the Iraq War.
And what might the charges be? Criminal negligence, resulting in great loss of life with no end in sight, for the way they arrogantly (ignorantly, in President Bush's case) rushed into a war without adequately planning for its aftermath. It's all carefully laid out here through interviews with the foreign-policy advisors and career foreign-service experts who tried to warn them, as well as with writers, soldiers, Iraqi politicians and others forced to address the consequences of their mess.
To sum up No End in Sight's point as concisely as possible, Bush et al disregarded everyone inside the government -- and on the ground -- who warned they would need enough troops in Iraq after the invasion to maintain order. They were trying to do the war on the cheap without stirring up too much protest at home, so they just assumed they could get a relatively small invasion force of troops in and out quickly. They might also have been fooled by their own lack of meaningful military service into thinking war is easy.
Once the Iraqis realized the U.S. didn't care about stopping the riots that broke out after the "liberation" ("Stuff happens," Rumsfeld repulsively commented at the time) or providing fundamental services, they gave up on the U.S.
bettering their lives.
And when the incompetent Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) that Bush put in charge of running occupied Iraq moved to disband the Iraqi Army and purge all members of the state's ruling Baath Party, it created an angry, armed insurgency with nothing to lose.
The film, which won a Special Documentary Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, makes its case with dramatic effect and polished direction from Charles Ferguson. He's helped by the pinpoint-sharp editing of Chad Beck and Cindy Lee.
The recent interviews -- some done amid dangerous conditions in Iraq -- serve as point-counterpoint balance with resourcefully collected newsreel footage of both the war and Bush and his insular, isolated policymakers saying foolish things like, "I don't do quagmires," and, "Bring 'em on." There's also a swirling, taut, Philip Glass-like score by Peter Natal and suitably indignant narration by Campbell Scott.
In one remarkable sequence, Ferguson cuts between Paul Hughes, a director of strategic planning for the U.S. occupation in 2003 who tried to warn the Administration about its faulty planning, and Walter Slocomb, senior advisor for national security for the CPA. Hughes' memory is sharp as a tack in recalling the CPA's lack of interest in the growing problems. Slocomb has such trouble remembering details that one gets the feeling he's doing his best to forget.
But at least he agreed to be interviewed; his boss Paul Bremer and Bremer's bosses in the White House declined. Not a prosecutor, Ferguson couldn't compel them to either testify or take the Fifth.
What's most surprising about No End in Sight, given how damning it is toward Bush, is that the film isn't inherently antiwar the way Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 or Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight were.
Ferguson doesn't care at all about the whole pre-invasion WMD debacle -- it's barely mentioned. And while he does point out that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, he seems to imply that Saddam's crimes against his own people justified some kind of intervention -- just not one like this.
While it's definitely more ammunition for those who find Bush appalling, it's also a film that post-9/11 foreign-policy-concerned conservatives might, if not like, at least respect.
Ferguson holds a doctorate in political science from MIT and worked as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute think tank. He also started a software company that he sold to Microsoft for $133 million, making him a millionaire with time on his hands. He got production help on this from Alex Gibney, Oscar-winning director of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.
Politically, Ferguson seems a Clinton interventionist -- the kind who believes that military force, done with ample international support, can make a difference in a place like Bosnia or Darfur ... or maybe even Iraq. But, to repeat the obvious, not an intervention like this.
The film concentrates on the first three years of the now-five-year-old war (that's hard to believe, isn't it?), so it glosses over more recent developments, including what has caused the growth of Sunni suicide bombers. That is an important subject still awaiting cinematic exploration.
Overall, the film is highly influenced by journalist George Packer's Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq; the writer is quoted extensively in the film. So are a lot of other smart people, inside and outside government, who even before the invasion knew that Bush and his clique were on a disaster course.
Unfortunately, they were up against a man destined to be remembered as one of America's worst presidents ever. Somebody please make him watch this film and face up to the damage he's done. Grade: A-