At Sundance there’s a new movie from a political science professor / web software developer who sold his company to Microsoft for millions, that looks to be the big screen cross between Rajiv Chandraskaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone (see my review here) and Thomas Ricks’ Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.
Policy wonk-turned-rookie filmmaker Charles Ferguson’s “No End in Sight,” making its debut this month as one of 16 films in the documentary competition at the Sundance Film Festival, is among several docus this year about the war on terrorism.
Ferguson gained access to experienced players on the ground in Iraq, including then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage; Gen. Jay Garner; Barbara Bodine; coordinator for central Iraq in charge of Baghdad; and Col. Paul Hughes, who explains with all-too-vivid candor how Iraqi administrator L. Paul Bremer came into Iraq and swiftly made enormous decisions with devastating consequences as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. “No End” clearly lays out what happened in 2003 and ’04 from the inside out — at a time when the new, Democrat-controlled Congress is taking a hard look at the U.S.’ Iraq policy.
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….
Much of that money went into a month of filming in Iraq, which was extremely dangerous. The fledgling filmmaker spent about $7,000 a day on an armored Mercedes and a large Kurdish security detail armed with machine guns. He went into the streets incognito, never for more than 20 minutes, never to the same place twice. Ferguson gained extraordinary access to people who were close to the action and willing to say astonishing things.
The film captures, in the compressed time period just before and after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, a litany of often unbelievable mistakes seemingly made on the basis of whimsy. There was an apparent lack of preparation, lack of a plan and a lack of troops. No martial law was declared. Widespread looting wasn’t stopped, costing the Iraqis their cultural heritage. “It was a free-for-all,” one observer says. The only place protected by the U.S. military, according to the film, was the oil ministry. (Vice president Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz all declined Ferguson’s interview requests.)
While the Americans did little to restore order or basic infrastructure, perhaps Bremer’s most ill-advised move — which was decided before he had even arrived in Iraq — was disbanding the Iraqi military, the Republican Guard and the secret police, sending about 500,000 armed men into resentful unemployment. Ferguson contends that rounding up many of these people later on and imprisoning them indefinitely in Abu Ghraib only added to a general Iraqi sense that the Americans did not care about them. The 45,000 private military contractors didn’t help the situation. The movie shows video footage shot by one rogue contractor of willful sniper fire at civilians in cars. It looks like a video game. By 2004, the relationship between the Iraqis and the military had become toxic….
It’s devastating to see Garner’s regret that he didn’t bang on the door and force the powers that be to listen. But it seems that they weren’t interested in what he had to say. “The administration is clearly so convinced of its own rectitude, such believers in executive power, which they extended to the pro-counsel of Iraq,” Gibney says…
Ferguson’s film ends with a devastating 2003 clip of President Bush at the start of the war, earnestly promising, “We will bring to the Iraqi people food, medicine and supplies and freedom.” But, summing up, a clear-eyed Moulton says, “Don’t tell me this is the best America can do.”
Personally, I’m eager to see this movie.