On the surface, what sets director Charles Ferguson‘s Iraq documentary “No End in Sight” apart is what it doesn’t have: no gimmicks, no ambush interviews, no cinema verite. The documentary gets its power largely from talking heads.
“I wanted to discuss the large-scale policy questions,” says Ferguson. “And I can’t do that by following people around.”
Pic, released by Magnolia Pictures, is currently rolling out across the country.
Zeroing in on the decisionmaking before and after the invasion of Iraq that led to the current quagmire, Ferguson snared candid interviews with former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage; Ambassador Barbara Bodine; Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell; and General Jay Garner, who was initially in charge of the post-invasion occupation.
They joined a host of other interviewees who pin the blame for the country’s current crisis on a series of foreign policy gaffes, including the lack of troops initially sent to the country, the failure to stop the looting in the weeks after Baghdad fell, the “de-Ba’athification” that purged Iraqi politicians from the government, and the disbanding of the Iraqi military. The latter two decisions sent hundreds of thousands of Iraqis looking for work and is blamed by some for fueling the insurgency.
But there also were smaller decisions, equally perplexing, like placing recent college grads in their 20s in charge of major reconstruction projects.
“The person appointed to set up the Baghdad stock exchange was a 24-year-old Yale graduate,” Ferguson says. “There was a lot of that.”
With a Ph.D. in political science and experience as a former fellow at the Brookings Institution and member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Ferguson, 52, is an unabashed policy wonk who chooses his words carefully in an effort to give very precise answers. As the co-founder of Vermeer Technologies, the creator of the Microsoft Front Page web software, he made a small fortune from the sale of the company and later invested some $2 million of his own money into “No End in Sight.”
Ferguson says he was “very sympathetic” to the idea of using military force to remove Saddam Hussein, “but from the very beginning I was disturbed by how the Bush administration was going about it.”
“You couldn’t see much about what was going on inside,” he says. “They were very secretive and very effective in withholding information. But the things you could see on the outside worried me, and then pretty quickly after the war I began to hear disturbing things.”
He got to know New Yorker writer George Packer, who had been reporting from Iraq, and by early 2004 “he made it clear that it was a lot different than the administration and newspapers were telling you. ‘It’s really bad, and it’s going to get a lot worse.’ ”
Ferguson, hoping to change policy by way of a documentary, enlisted filmmaker Alex Gibney as an executive producer, then sought out interviews with those involved.
What he found was a small group of people making decisions and rebuffing advice from Garner and others. Much blame in the film is pointed at Paul Bremer, who replaced Garner and disbanded the Iraqi army. He originally agreed to be interviewed but backed out. Others, like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, also declined. One of the few defenders of the way that the war was carried out who does appear is Walt Slocombe, who was responsible for overseeing the creation of a new Iraqi Army.
Since the movie’s initial showing at Sundance, where it won the special documentary jury prize, Ferguson hasn’t heard anything from current Bush administration officials. But writing this week in Salon, former Clinton administration adviser Sidney Blumenthal wrote that the Bush administration is “spooked” by the doc, especially as it looks to a P.R. offensive next month to make the case that the surge is working.
What is left unanswered in “No End in Sight” is the “why?” Why was the war carried out the way it was?
Ferguson himself confesses to still being a bit perplexed.
There was some combination of extraordinary arrogance that led them to think that they didn’t have to listen to anyone else,” he says. “They didn’t have to worry about anything. They just knew what was right and that everybody in Iraq would naturally and necessarily agree. It is a mystery.”