No End in Sight
Ever since the “documentary revolution” was declared in the early 2000s, there has been much hullabaloo about the different forms of doc film. From Michael Moore’s subjective op-ed narratives and first-person experiments like Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me to creative investigations like Capturing the Friedmans, and political analyses told with artistic bravado like The Corporation and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, there have been many important leaps—and a somewhat increased commercial appetite—in the ever-malleable continuum of doc films.
No End in Sight, Charles Ferguson’s recently released documentary about the current Iraq War, is a strong example of the resurgence of the 70s-style narration/archival/interview doc and its ability to deliver a devastating summary. Perhaps because of its timing but certainly because of the skill of the argument and the fecundity of subject matter, this film may expand the popularity of documentary films. This is partly because of the fact that for more than four years, in the background of our lives, we have heard bits and pieces of the downward spiral that “Operation Iraqi Freedom” has taken but haven’t really seen a comprehensive film outlining the whole sad trajectory so far (and really won’t, of course, until the whole mess is resolved someday).
There have been excellent films about the occupation from various points of view (e.g., Garrett Scott and Ian Olds’ Occupation: Dreamland, about members of the 82nd Airborne right before the siege of Falluja, and Andrew Berends’ The Blood of My Brother, a story of how an Iraqi family deals with the death of one of their family by American troops—both films are shot in verité style). Each of these films adds a crucial perspective to increasingly consistent mentions of “car bomb,” “deaths,” and “Iraq” in the media that has become so common that it’s easy to feel numb or only feign shock at this point. No End in Sight offers a condensed context for this horrible trajectory. For example, it’s a testament to the film (and to the Bush administration’s incompetence) that, more than halfway through the film, Ferguson has effectively dissected and documented enough of the botched decisions about going to war that the viewer starts to think “how can it get any worse?” At that point, though, you realize that you are only at the moment in the occupation when the UN Headquarters was car bombed in August 2003, an incident that is widely seen as when the insurgency started to make its mark.
It’s amazing how things pile up: the long-term consequences of allowing massive looting to take place after the invasion to the decision to dismantle the Iraq Army and pursue “de-Ba’athification”; a myopic insistence by the Bush administration from the beginning that it was right, enabling it to stuff incompetents behind walls in the Green Zone; or the lack of armor provided the normal troops while private contractors were provided excesses. But No End in Sight is more than a compendium of error. By using a variety of penitent voices formerly linked to the administration—such as Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, General Jay Garner and former ambassador Barbara Bodine—Ferguson creates a credibility that, unfortunately or not, is what is often needed in a critical film in order for the mainstream press to pay attention. (Ferguson’s connection to the inside-the-Beltway Brookings Institute no doubt helped this). The film also goes to great lengths to find amateur video from soldiers, and it uses news clips and “viral” videos from the Internet (it shows the notorious footage of contractors randomly shooting at Iraqi vehicles backed by a country and western soundtrack). You can also hear Ferguson’s questions off-camera, a risky but effective aspect of his interviews, mostly because he has done his homework.
Of course, part of this effectiveness is also timing: the war is four years in, public support for the war is at an all-time low, and there is a culmination of Bad News that begs for a stringing together in a visual and visceral essay. How could you miss? Charles Ferguson, a first-time director and successful software entrepreneur, obviously put a lot of research, time and expertise into this film. What sets it apart from the legions of current events docs that often take the same form is that it doesn’t have to be middle-of-the-road (which is usually the result of paranoia about being “objective”). Instead, at the right time and with the right resources, No End in Sight offers an undeniably persuasive portrait of a misguided venture.