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Shock and Awe 

The director of a riveting new Iraq documentary goes looking for answers and finds No End in Sight

Wednesday, Jul 25 2007
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As has been the case throughout our interview, his response is measured: “I hope,” says the voice on the other end of the phone, “that the mood of the country now is such that people will be willing to sit through a film that, while I hope is interesting and compelling, isn’t entertaining or ‘fun.’ Did I do the right thing? I don’t know. We’ll see.”

That’s not the sort of candor you usually hear from filmmakers on the publicity circuit. But then Dr. Charles H. Ferguson isn’t a filmmaker, which may explain why No End in Sight, his brilliant and riveting documentary about the Bush administration’s failures in Iraq, is at once the most devastating cinematic postmortem on America’s colossal blunder in the Middle East, and the most sober.

Though its subject is the many mistakes made since our so-called liberation of the Iraqi people in 2003, Ferguson’s film achieves something even more impressive: It precisely captures the emotional climate of the nation. Given Bush’s and Congress’ abysmal poll numbers, it’s hardly a sweeping, partisan generalization to suggest that most Americans feel a mixture of utter exhaustion and outright depression about a seemingly never-ending conflict that has sapped a hefty chunk of our financial and human resources — not to mention our dwindling reserves of good will abroad. In its calm dissection of America’s foreign-policy arrogance and mismanagement, No End in Sight, which won the Special Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, speaks to that morbid bleakness in all its permanence.

click to enlarge Man on a mission (Magnolia Pictures)
  • Man on a mission (Magnolia Pictures)

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The film’s detached tone is in keeping with Ferguson’s thoughtful, unexcitable demeanor. With a Ph.D. in political science from MIT, he is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a visiting scholar at Berkeley. He’s written books on IBM’s decline (Computer Wars: The Post-IBM World) and the fierce Silicon Valley battles of the startup ’90s (High Stakes, No Prisoners: A Winner’s Tale of Greed and Glory in the Internet Wars), a topic he understood firsthand after developing the FrontPage software program that was later bought by Microsoft.

The idea of making a film had already begun to germinate when Ferguson went to dinner with New Yorker staff writer George Packer in early 2004. Packer had just returned from Iraq and had countless stories about how badly the U.S. occupation was going — much worse, he said, than the media was reporting.

Ferguson had found the theme for his first film. But his enthusiasm was squashed by friends who strongly warned him against it, albeit not for the reason you might think.

“They said, ‘You’ll be competing with 10 other people who are going to be doing the same thing,’?” he recalls. “?‘The BBC, CNN, people backed by studios .?.?. It’s going to be such an enormous, obviously important subject that a number of people are gonna be making films about it.’ Well, I waited a year for that reason, and I didn’t see anything appear. So I went back to these same people in 2005 and said, ‘Don’t tell me about everybody who’s going to be making this movie; tell me if anybody is making this movie. And they said no. So I said, ‘Screw it: I’ll make the film.’?”

Striving to be as accurate as possible in his analysis, Ferguson drew from a wealth of on-camera journalists and policymakers, constructing No End in Sight less as an angry invective than as a kind of whodunit. Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson (who was Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff) may be the big draws for political junkies, but some of the most damaging testimony comes from lesser-known military men and ambassadors whose devotion to the cause of a free Iraq has left them haunted and betrayed. 

While it leaves no stone unturned in discussing how the Iraq occupation has stumbled, No End in Sight deliberately sidesteps debating the morality of America’s invasion. That omission has provoked criticism that Ferguson’s disgust doesn’t stem from an unjust war, but rather a badly handled one.

“I wouldn’t say I was rigidly, completely [supporting the war],” Ferguson says. “But I was quite favorably predisposed toward the idea of using military force to remove Saddam.” His belief in the existence of WMDs and the futility of unsuccessful U.N. sanctions spurred his thinking, even though, he admits, “I never was terribly optimistic or terribly confident about the Bush administration.”

Ferguson’s use of the phrase “Bush administration” is important. While most Iraq documentaries posit our commander in chief as a singular villain, No End in Sight feels almost radical in proposing that those around Bush, most notably Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, are more responsible for the quagmire.

While Ferguson says he admires Michael Moore’s use of humor to make his points, No End in Sight is scrupulously unfunny, utilizing press-conference footage of Rumsfeld for other than cheap comic relief. So, the very thing that makes Ferguson concerned about his film’s entertainment value may be its greatest asset: We’ve become so conditioned to laugh at Bush’s face in post-9/11 documentaries that it becomes too easy to dismiss him and his cabinet as simpletons. With its cool-headed, diligent style, No End in Sight demands that we take the full measure of these individuals. They’re not comical; they’re horrifying.

Just don’t expect Ferguson to lead the charge toward an impeachment. Like the political scientist he is, unmoved by groundswells from either party, he offers an answer that is pragmatic, not emotional.

“With regret, I have to make an unpopular point, which is that George W. Bush was reelected by the United States people in 2004,” he says. “And it’s not like we didn’t have any idea by that time what was going on. We didn’t have the full idea, but we certainly knew there were grave questions and grave mistakes.

“On the other hand,” he continues after a moment’s pause, “do I think that these people behaved in a horrifically, gigantically arrogant, inhumane, devastatingly incompetent and selfish way? Yes.”

No End in Sight opens August 3 in Los Angeles theaters. For a review, see next week’s issue.

Reach the writer at grierson@hotmail.com

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