You know the feeling. You’ve settled in for another hour of your favorite reality show, eagerly anticipating the crazy shit about to go down, when the announcer says, “It’s been a wild season so far … ” Your hungry heart sinks. It’s a damn clip show. Or the stuff-we-never-showed-you installment, which is just as aggravating. But these compilations aren’t just the province of guilty-pleasure time-killers. PBS’s award-winning documentary series Frontline has even gotten into the act. When the subject is the sobering, exhaustive and tragic über-narrative of the war on terror, the feeling is hardly that this is the “best of” American leadership.
For the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, producer Michael Kirk has culled from dozens of the series’ laudable reports (many by him) on both the conflict and Bush’s government — including new reporting — to create next week’s two-part, four-and-a-half-hour Bush’s War. For anyone who has forgotten the details about the biggest foreign-policy misadventure of our time, it’s an invaluable way of getting up to speed on this powerfully grim freight train of ill-timed bullheadedness, hypocritical secrecy, squandered resources, school-yard-level venality, darkly brilliant manipulation and — perhaps above all — sheer incompetence. And for those who know the facts well, seeing them in their full chronological sweep with some pungent analysis by interviewed insiders carries a fresh charge. Certain biographical arcs become particularly fascinating as tales of power won and lost — namely responsibility hog Donald Rumsfeld’s gradual muzzling and Condoleezza Rice’s education in cabinet survival — while the dispiriting join-’em-if-you-can’t-beat-’em trajectories of Colin Powell and George Tenet evoke a kind of mealy pity. With all the presidential-campaign hoopla about who’s going to be more ready on his or her first day in office, those reacquainting themselves with the details of this epic story of crisis response — an IED-pockmarked memory lane — will at least know what not to do.