The No-Spin Zone

Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Charlie Ferguson’s No End in Sight depicts the first year of the Iraq occupation, after the mission was accomplished, through the eyes of the diplomats, journalists, officers, and enlisted personnel who watched the country spiral into chaos. Their tone—almost universally—is neither angry nor mournful. They are bewildered. They’re like passengers who yelled Red light! to a driver who insisted it was green or pretended not to hear or simply thought, It doesn’t matter what color it is because I know where I want to go, and mowed down scores of pedestrians. Bewilderment: a funny tone for a film that is, finally, so incendiary.

Ferguson isn’t a clownish lefty rabble-rouser like Michael Moore. He’s a policy wonk with a doctorate from MIT, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of three books on information technology. He’s interested in How Things Work—and Fall Apart. Soberly narrated by Campbell Scott, the film is a meticulous, thoroughly engrossing lesson in how not to win friends (or wars) and influence people (or potential terrorists). The best way, it emerges, is not to pay attention, before making a big decision, to people who know stuff.

Many of Ferguson’s examples turn on that word, decision, and go something like this (I’m paraphrasing): “John Q. Bozo, a Rumsfeld/Cheney appointee with no background in reconstruction or government planning, no history of military service, no knowledge of Arabic, no firsthand experience of conditions on the ground (having never set foot on Iraqi soil), made the decision, against the increasingly urgent advice of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), the CIA, military personnel, and anyone who knew anything about the region or the laws of cause and effect, to set in motion a policy that would ultimately unleash all the forces of chaos and destruction in the universe. He was subsequently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.” A title then announces that John Q. Bozo declined to be interviewed—as did Cheney, Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Bremer, and Douglas Feith.

One who—admirably—did not decline is Walter Slocombe, a senior adviser to Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority. It falls to Slocombe to defend such Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz decisions as keeping the ground forces small—too small to, say, guard huge ammunition dumps that were subsequently scavenged by insurgents. Stalwart though he is, Slocombe does not rise to the occasion; as he senses the dimensions of the quagmire (vis-à-vis the interview, not Iraq), you catch his eyes searching for a fire alarm to pull. Bremer, in a clip from Frontline, does better when asked to recall ORHA director Jay Garner’s plea not to fire 50,000 Baathist officials who might have helped maintain the country’s infrastructure: Did Garner say that? He might have. It’s possible. There was so much going on. Memory is such a fragile thing.

The most visibly haunted interviewee, Colonel Paul Hughes, was no more successful than Garner in reversing another fateful decision: to throw half a million Iraqi soldiers out of work, thus creating half a million pissed-off potential insurgents with access to weapons and a lot of time on their hands. Hughes says there’s a direct link between that act and the start of the insurgency—the existence of which is repeatedly denied by Rumsfeld, who ridicules the “Henny Pennys who say the sky is falling.” (And Voldemort has not come back, he does not add.)

You can read about this period in Fiasco, Hubris, The Assassins’ Gate, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Blind Into Baghdad, and other books. But pictures—even of talking heads—help focus one’s outrage, and Ferguson’s juxtapositions are quietly devastating. Vastly experienced ambassador Barbara Bodine gets her walking papers for not playing well with others while the Green Zone becomes a Club Med for dishy college grads whose rich daddies gave big bucks to the Republican Party. (One is put in charge of overseeing all traffic in the Iraqi capital.) As attacks on Americans rise, George W. Bush—whose own rich daddy saved him from Vietnam—does his cowboy number. “My answer is, Bring them on,” he says, manfully—at a time, Ferguson reports, when only one in eight Humvees had adequate armor to withstand roadside bombs. In November 2004, Cheney sneers that the insurgency (heretofore said not to exist) is “in its death throes.” By the time the film ends (late 2006), the chickens have come home to roost. But the chicken hawks still rule.

Although I’d be personally inclined to depict Cheney and Rumsfeld as figures out of Men in Black, splitting open to reveal giant cockroaches, No End in Sight proves there’s nothing more subversive than a somber, lucid recitation of facts. Ferguson doesn’t linger on the subject of fat, no-bid contracts for administration friends—that’s the thrust of another documentary, Iraq for Sale. Nor is he reckless about ascribing motives to the war’s architects. We can argue about what they aimed to do. What they did, the film drives home, was criminal negligence at best. To say what it was at worst you’d need Dante.

A megalomaniacal drunk who’d killed people behind the wheel could hardly rebuke a judge for dwelling on his past mistakes instead of looking to the future. He could hardly expect to have his keys returned—either to stay the course or wreak havoc on another stretch of road. So why is he still unfettered? Anthony Giacchino’s lively documentary, The Camden 28, sheds indirect light on the matter. An account of the trial of 28 antiwar activists (26 of them Catholic, four of them priests) who, in 1971, tried to steal files from a New Jersey draft board, the film makes you realize that the climate for dissent is not what it used to be. To begin with, there is no draft (only mandatory third tours of duty) to galvanize a culture of couch potatoes. The government is more efficient at snuffing out peaceful protests before they flare into embarrassments. (Witness Mayor Bloomberg’s Minority Report–like preemptive arrest of antiwar demonstrators in 2004.) Finally, it’s doubtful any modern judge would allow Howard Zinn to take the stand to discourse on the injustice of a war. The aborted Camden caper (there was a Judas, albeit one who emerges as a sympathetic figure) was unremarkable. But the 1973 trial—in which the mother of one defendant spoke about the loss of her other son in Vietnam and Zinn discoursed on the justness of the outlaws’ cause—was a holier-than-thou fest in which the other side could hardly have been unholier. Not only did J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI help train and fund the Camden 28 prior to the break-in, but they were also acting at the behest of Nixon and John Mitchell. A confederacy of dickheads.

The Camden 28 is slapdash: more talking heads, reunion footage with the mother reading from her own testimony, newscasts of the day. But the editing supplies some urgency, and the subjects remain radiant yet down-to-earth—too good-humored to be beatific. The film evokes an era when the Church led the fight for social justice instead of against it. A denouement shows several of the Camden 28 marching against the current war. But the other side does a better job these days of making them inconsequential.

Becoming Jane is a bearable period chick flick with a self-congratulatory “realistic” conceit: that Jane Austen was exactly like Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, except her romance with her D’Arcy didn’t have a fairy-tale ending. How like life. The movie isn’t like life, though—it’s like watered-down Austen. (At least it doesn’t cut between “fiction” and “reality.”) Anne Hathaway has learned to ease up on the mugging and let us come to her. She’s no Jane Austen, but she’s got the gumption of an Austen heroine.

While Charles Ferguson was en route to Baghdad, his flight from Istanbul was canceled. So he and his two-man crew drove. “You can only do it at night. People told me later that it was an exceptionally dangerous thing to do,” says the director of No End in Sight. They were escorted by twenty armed guards, traveling in four pickup trucks. In Baghdad, a civilian vehicle detonated an IED in front of them. “We had to wait for the American military to clear the area. Where there’s one IED, there are others or there is an ambush. We were not ambushed.”

No End in Sight
Directed by Charles Ferguson. Magnolia Pictures. NR.

The Camden 28
Directed by Anthony Giacchino. First Run Features. NR.

Becoming Jane
Directed by Julian Jarrold. Miramax. PG.


The No-Spin Zone