While broadcast news continues mostly avoiding anything that resembles genuine news in primetime, "Frontline" devotes a delicious 4½ hours to deconstructing the steaming mess in Iraq, with enough internal bickering ("Friendships were dashed") and turf battles to make for great historical drama.

While broadcast news continues mostly avoiding anything that resembles genuine news in primetime, “Frontline” devotes a delicious 4½ hours to deconstructing the steaming mess in Iraq, with enough internal bickering (“Friendships were dashed”) and turf battles to make for great historical drama. Producer-writer-director Michael Kirk doesn’t turn over many new leafs, but he assembles the old ones in a compelling, polished manner that intelligently connects the dots to show where the Bush administration’s grand aspirations went howlingly wrong. In terms of PBS’ ongoing battle to justify its existence, “Bush’s War” ranks as a formidable foot soldier.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney are, in essence, the central players in this narrative, which begins with the Sept. 11 attacks and the duo’s immediate desire to seize on those events as a rationale to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks dubs Cheney the “Moby Dick of the Bush administration,” whose voice consistently swayed President Bush toward pursuing whatever “extraordinary powers” would be required to combat the terrorist threat.

Rumsfeld, meanwhile, so charming and quotable in the war’s early days, drafted an in-hindsight-laughable original attack plan involving 75,000 troops — less than a fifth of the 400,000 the Army had advocated.

Yet both men were consummate political infighters, overwhelming more restrained voices within the administration, including then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was marginalized, and his successor Condoleezza Rice, who was forced to resort to a kind of spying on Rumsfeld — who didn’t respect her — in order to stay in the information loop.

Powell’s deputy Richard Armitage refers to administration brass being seduced by the “siren song” of a successful campaign in Iraq that would theoretically reshape the Middle East in all kinds of fabulous ways.

At the same time, senior Bush officials manipulated the media, leaking stories (such as those regarding “weapons of mass destruction” reported by Judith Miller in the New York Times) that its representatives subsequently cited in interviews, consciously creating “an echo effect.”

Part two segues from the prewar jockeying to the conflict’s prosecution and the utter lack of planning for a postwar insurgency. What follows plays like a how-not-to manual for nation-building, helping explain the parade of failures during the post-invasion years, with inexperienced generals, no clear lines of authority and ill-considered decisions, such as disbanding the Iraqi army and thus putting thousands of idle, armed men onto the streets.

Kirk deftly links these mistakes to various high-profile events, including administration fears that the intelligence community was undermining them (leading to the revelation of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity) and mounting pressure for on-the-ground intel that gave rise to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

“Bush’s War,” notably, comes at a point where the administration has again called for public television’s budget to be slashed. If the best defense truly is a good offense, then nothing could endorse the service more powerfully than this sobering documentary — a genre that finds little toehold within the current primordial ooze of broadcast TV journalism.

Bush's War

PBS, Mon.-Tues. March 24-25, 9 p.m.

Production

Produced by Frontline and Kirk Documentary Group. Executive producer, David Fanning; producer-writer-director, Michael Kirk; co-producer, Mike Wiser.

Crew

RUNNING TIME: 4 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

Reporter: Jim Gilmore.

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