Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Movies: No End In Sight

Film Forum's marquee boasts a quote from The New York Times' movie reviewer:

"Absolutely" Vital - A.O. Scott

The misplaced quotation mark has probably gone unnoticed by everyone but me. Amusingly enough, the first time I saw it, I thought that the quote referred to the New York City Noir series which, my movie-going pal agreed, is indeed absolutely vital. No End In Sight? Not so much, so long as you've been carefully reading the news these past few years.

I had big hopes for this documentary on the failing Iraqi reconstruction project, featuring such big players as Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, Ambassador Barbara Bodine, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson (Colin Powell's former Chief-of-Staff), and General Jay Garner discussing their roles in the reconstruction and their interactions with Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and Wolfowitz beginning with the U.S. military "victory" in 2003. The trailer, which I had seen a few times, depicted a variety of internal people admitting guilt, lack of competence, and frustration with the current administration, and what young, over-educated, upper middle class, urban liberal like myself doesn't lick her chops at the prospect of such a display?

This is Prof. Charles Ferguson's first movie, and it's an impressive first effort, but I was still disappointed, considering how inflated my hopes were by the critical acclaim. I don't doubt that obtaining such candid interviews with such big names as Dick Armitage is a great feat, or that walking up to Iraqi citizens with a camera and recording their honest opinions takes cojones, and I won't even criticize the Philip Glass-rip off soundtrack pulsing with deadly serious rhythmic strings.

So what was great? The historical background provided for people like me, who were babies barely born when the U.S. was giving military aid to Saddam Hussein in hopes of protecting ourselves against the greater threat of Iran. The opportunity of seeing an Iraqi explain that, unless liberal democracy provides for the people, the people will say, "To hell with liberal democracy, we want a strong man," which is true, and speaks not just of Iraqis, but of humans in general, who demand food, water, and safety before higher political ideals. The interview with U.S. Marines Lieutenant Seth Moulton, who maintains pride in America and the Marines while intelligently criticizing a wide variety of logistical mistakes, from having no armored humvees to hiring American contractors to do projects that the Marines and Iraqi citizens could do (and did do, in tandem) for less than one-fifth of the cost and in far less time (specific examples are given). The interview with Colonel Paul Hughes, who appears to be one of the very few competent people sent to Iraq (along with Ambassador Barbara Bodine).

The film lays much blame on Rumsfeld removing the competent (as competent as was possible, given the situation) General Jay Garner for Paul Bremer, who had no reconstruction experience, no military experience, and no Middle East experience. This man was the source of of the program that the film claims led to Iraq's current situation (de-Ba'athification and disbanding of the Iraqi army ensured massive unemployment for both the Intelligentsia and the army, which led to the despair that then drove these people to take matters into their own hands, assisted by the availability of weapons in unprotected munition dumps all around the country. This is particularly infuriating when we see that Colonel Hughes had been investing all his time and energy in negotiating with Iraqi generals who were recollecting their troops to assist the U.S. team in restoring order in the streets and beginning reconstruction (after the massive looting that U.S. soldiers, on order from the Pentagon, had stood by and watched without firing so much as one rubber bullet), a strategy to which the administration had given the green light in a February 2003 meeting).

What was not so great? Ultimately, the sense of hopelessness. Unlike the bright ending to An Inconvenient Truth which offered a long list of what we can do to help, No End In Sight left me feeling disgusted and miserable and sickened that people aren't more mindful. I'm sickened by American profiteering, I'm sickened by poor leadership, and I'm sickened by humanity's recourse to violence, again and again throughout history, when met with adversity. And this sickness is paralyzing.

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