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Movie Review - No End in Sight

July 26th, 2007

No End in Sight is the latest documentary dealing with the current war in Iraq. This one focuses on how we got there, starting right after 9/11 and the pre-war intelligence and moving on to the planning for the occupation and reconstruction. It shows at nearly every stage that the war was mismanaged and that any dissenting opinions were ignored, at best, while the people giving them were fired at times. This is the kind of film that will infuriate you beyond words. Then again, if you've been paying attention, you are probably already at that level.

The film does an excellent job at examining the problems in Iraq and identifying some of the root causes. Early in the film, we are given the background of the story from the Iraq / Iran war back in the 80s to the first Gulf War in the 90s and later the economic embargo. It makes the strong case that, from the beginning, America's involvement with the Iraqi government and its people put short-term political goals over the welfare of the Iraqis. Saddam committed human rights abuses and used chemical weapons on civilians, but the Reagan administration thought he was needed to curb Iran's power. George Bush Sr. asked the Iraqis to rise up and overthrow Saddam, but aiding the growing and successful rebellion was rejected, resulting in harsh reprisals. Economic sanctions started after the first Gulf War continued throughout the Clinton administration despite the Iraqi people paying the high cost while Saddam and his rich friends were unaffected.

Systematically, this film goes over the decisions, and the decisions-makers, showing how they ignored and attacked any dissenting opinions. It goes on to show how poor planning helped create or exasperate problems. Lack of soldiers meant lawlessness in the streets. Lawlessness led to looting at first, and quickly escalated to more serious crimes like murder, rape and kidnapping. This crime wave and vacuum in leadership led to the rise of religious extremists and the militias. The rise of the militias led to the insurgencies. Not only were these problems predicted and the predictions ignored, but the people in charge were slow to recognize the problems when they developed and quick to attack those who pointed out the clear evidence.

After watching No End in Sight three times now, it seems to me that every decision made by the people in charge was designed to make the situation worse. I'm not saying this was intentional, but I swear they couldn't have done a worse job if they were working for the other side. Disbanding the army, preventing the Iraqi people from having a say early in the process, mass arrests, prisoner abuses, etc., etc., etc.

Not only does the documentary makes the error of these decisions clear, it also shows that the people in charge at the highest levels were seriously lacking in experience. Many of the people in charge didn't have any experience in post-war occupation and reconstruction. They had never had any dealings with the Middle East. They didn't even speak the languages. The film hints that the underlings were hired for their loyalty, but I don't think this point was made forcefully enough as I think this is one of the most important points that the film could have made. Not only were the underlings hired for their loyalty, but the people in charge also put loyalty to their party over competence. L. Paul Bremer, for instance, had zero experience in the job he was given to perform, but he was convinced he was right and those who disagreed with him were marginalized or fired. Loyalty was more valued than competence.

There were quite a few single quotes that stood out while watching the movie. For instance, you don't go into a serious political documentary expecting to hear, "I don't know what these people were smoking, but it must have been very good." But that's exactly what author James Bamford says with regard to some of the pre-war intelligence. And quite frankly, he makes the point about as well as anyone. With regards to differing opinions we get, "They just didn't want to know; they didn't want to hear it." And of course there's the infamous, "Bring 'em on." The phrase, "emboldening the enemy" is thrown around a lot by one side as an attempt to stifle debate. However, I don't think it applies anywhere more than it does to, "Bring 'em on."

(On a side note, more than once while watching this movie I felt Donald Rumsfeld should be rehired and fired again. But this time he should be grilled in front of Congress until he cracks. His total contempt for open and honest debate is shocking.)

No End in Sight isn't perfect. The style is nearly non-existent as it is mostly just talking heads inter-cut with news clips / video from the front lines. The narration is straightforward but the tone is hardly enthusiastic, nor does it get emotional in an attempt to be particularly engaging. Also, the film fails to deal with a lot of important questions as much as I would have liked. The manipulation of the pre-war intelligence is glossed over and the questions regarding the justification of the war are almost ignored. If the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq been better managed, would the war have been justified? This is an important question. The former complaint is common to nearly all documentaries and many will be glad that the film lets the facts to the talking. On the other hand, the latter one is more significant, but arguably not in the scope of this film -- it will be one for another documentary.

Even people who are political junkies like myself and who considered themselves well informed will learn even more from watching No End in Sight. And this will make them even more outraged. It makes its case thoroughly and convincingly to the point that even those who still support the Iraq war would have second thoughts after watching this movie. While it is most important that people in that shrinking minority see this movie, they will probably avoid this movie and that's a shame.

No End in Sight opens tomorrow in two theaters: the Film Forum in New York City and Landmark's E-Street Cinema in Washington, D.C.

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