January 24, 2007

Park City Dispatch. 6.

David D'Arcy moderated a panel last night of military experts, a journalist and No End in Sight director Charles Ferguson and producer Alex Gibney. Here, he offers his take on the film - and on the mess we're in. Related linkage follows.

No End in Sight The title No End in Sight points to how worrisome things have become In Iraq and in Washington. You get the feeling that the film could have been called The Perfect Storm if that title had not already been taken.

Charles Ferguson's first feature, produced by Alex Gibney (The Trials of Henry Kissinger, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), probes the decision-making process that got us into Iraq, and the subsequent decisions that got us in even deeper, as the Iraqi population and then the American electorate became aware of how a bad idea became an even more badly managed disaster. After taking Baghdad, the US forces watched as Iraqis looted their capital, destroying its infrastructure, pillaging its museums amd libraries, demoralizing the city, and fueling an uncontrollable atmosphere of anarchy that prevails today. Ferguson's film tracks the collapse of order from then to now, juxtaposing the recollections of analysts, administrators and soldiers about how the war was managed with the consequences of those decisions on the ground. It is graphic and grim.

The doc raises and explores now-familiar facts that should have been part of John Kerry's standard speech in 2004. When an advisory group assembled a 13-volume warning on the difficulties of occupying Iraq, Bush never read it. When it came to assigning responsibility for occupying Iraq, the White House assigned it to the Defense Department. When Bush annointee L Paul Bremer, the man given carte blanche to run Iraq, arrived in May 2003, one of his first major decisions was to disband the Iraqi army, sending hundreds of thousands of men with guns into unemployment. When the demoralization that followed fled the loosely organized opposition called the "insurgency," Donald Rumsfeld denied that such a thing existed. The list goes on.

Yesterday I moderated an event that brought together Ferguson, Gibney, former Marine officer Seth Moulton, former general and Iraq administrator Jay Garner, former Baghdad administrator Barbara Bodine, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, Lawrence Wilkerson, and Omar Fekeiki, a journalist who ran the Baghdad office of the Washington Post, who now studies journalism at UC Berkeley.

Everyone seemed to agree that the US war in Iraq had reached a point of crisis, at least with this administration, and that much of the challenge for the US there involved undoing the damage that the US occupation had caused after the capture of Baghdad. The Vietnam parallels, loose but clear, came up again and again, not least in the manipulation of language to sway public opinion. What other reason could there be for talking about a troop "surge" instead of an escalation? Remember that "escalation" was first used by the Johnson administration to avoid calling a troop increase by its actual name. Garner and Wilkerson, both Vietnam veterans, were quick to acknowledge the connections.

No End in Sight No End in Sight does not raise specific Vietnam parallels, a deliberate choice by its director. It's not anything like Hearts and Minds, Peter Davis's essential 1974 documentary which surveys conditions on the ground from battlefields to brothels, and talks to soldiers and politicians after the 1973 decision to end the draft and withdraw US troops. (Hearing the soldiers talk, you remember that these kids were 19 and 20 years old. Suffice it to say that if a draft were in effect today, Bush would have gotten nowhere near invading Iraq.) Ferguson's Iraq footage tends to be observation of horrific events and interviews with officials and other observers. Yet there is something of a parallel. Peter Davis likes to quote a general's comment in Hearts and Minds, stressing that, "if you grab them by the balls, their hearts and minds will come along, too." That's beginning to sound more like Iraq, where a curfew is in effect almost four years after the invasion that the CIA director, George Tenet, said would be a "slam dunk." Two million people have fled the country. Now, in his speech last night, George W Bush offered a perverted twist on John Lennon: "Give war a chance." Remember that the White House set the FBI out after Lennon for proposing the opposite.

The other parallel might be the long study of the decision-makers in the Vietnam War, The Best and the Brightest, by David Halberstam. In that 1972 epic, Halberstam told the story of a high-achieving elite of a generation that put itself in the service of a myth about American power and virtue that the Vietnam War put to rest - for most of us. I've never heard or seen any of W's reflections on the Vietnam War - too busy keeping the Corvette tuned. It's clear that we don't have the best and brightest in the White House. Just listen to the commander in chief - or listen to the analysts in No End in Sight whom he and his advisers at the Defense Department and in the Ocval Office ignored. The similarity is that a clutch of men - and a woman Secretary of State walking and talking in lockstep - have brought us this war, with minimal accountability. So far, no Robert McNamara has emerged as a critic of the war. Lawrence Wilkerson is the highest-level former official so far to repudiate the policies that took us to Iraq, and he was an army colonel who was Chief of Staff to Colin Powell. Let's bear in mind that McNamara didn't emerge as a public critic until years later. Where is this war's Daniel Ellsberg?

I was struck yesterday by an observation by the Iraqi journalist Omar Fekeiki - that he envied the people of Sudan, because there at least the Bush administration was aware of the problem that the people of Darfur were facing. I think his parallel is completely wrong. Sudan's Darfur region is facing an extermination campaign that reminds you of the worst days of Saddam Hussein, and getting the press in there to cover it is extremely difficult. Yet his words reflect the depth of anger at the US and what has been done in the name of the "war on terror."

No End in Sight suggests that things could get far worse before they improve. Isn't that what the title means?

Seen on the Main Street: the mantra on the button circulated by the Sundance Festival is "Focus on Film." Alas, on Main Street it might as well read "Focus on Fur." There are enough furs on Main Street strollers that I can just imagine how much more fur there is inside the VIP limousines favored by those film types who wouldn't be caught dead walking anywhere. A store is advertising 80 percent discounts. At Park City prices, that's probably just twice retail. The street could easily be carpeted with the pelts of these dead animals. I haven't yet determined whether this is "independent" fur. I always thought it looked a lot better on the original animal.

No End in Sight "Now that both public and the politicians are denouncing the war in Iraq, documentaries like Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight, premiering in Sundance's Documentary Competition, are simply essential," writes Filmmaker's Scott Macaulay. "The inevitable withdrawal of US troops is sure to prompt attacks by the real 'bitter enders' - administration officials and neo-cons who will pin the war's failures on an American lack of resolve - and Ferguson's sober and straightforward documentary is the necessary rebuttal."

Anne Thompson has a backgrounder for the Hollywood Reporter: "The film was fully financed by Ferguson, who earned his doctorate in foreign affairs at MIT and later sold his Silicon Valley software company, Vermeer Technologies, to Microsoft for about $133 million. His 1999 tell-all book, High Stakes, No Prisoners: A Winner's Tale of Greed and Glory in the Internet Wars, is angry, analytic and piercingly frank. So is No End."

Updates, 1/25: At indieWIRE Brian Brooks reports on a press conference and adds: "Unlike fellow competition doc Ghosts of Abu Ghraib by Rory Kennedy, which focuses on one particular calamity at the hands of systematic abuse, Ferguson's doc reveals the overarching blunders, including the chaos that ensued after the invasion, destroying everyday Iraqis' confidence in the US's intentions to secure their safety."

Cinematical's Kim Voynar attended the panel as well - and she's got video.

"There's none of the Zinn-Chomsky-Goodman crowd here," notes Jason Silverman for Wired News. "Ferguson interviews mostly players in the Republican party and disgusted former members of the Bush team.... Devastating."

Update, 1/26: "[T]his piercing and unbiased account of all the stupidity, venality and small-mindedness that created our nation's latest foreign policy disaster combines hardheaded journalism and a tragic sensibility," writes Salon's Andrew O'Hehir, emphasizing, like so many: "This is no left-wing screed; Ferguson himself says he was initially optimistic about America's foray into Iraq.... This is the film those stubborn Bush supporters in your family need to see."

Update, 2/3: Kim Voynar at Cinematical: "If the film's title strikes you as a bit negative, well, Ferguson clearly doesn't have the most optimistic outlook on the Iraq situation, but with deliberation and aforethought, he shows the viewer exactly why."

Coverage of the coverage: The Park City Index.

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Posted by dwhudson at January 24, 2007 10:19 AM