No End in Sight

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

A damning critique rendered with surgical precision, writer-director Charles Fergusons No End in Sight is the best of the recent spate of documentaries to examine the failures of Americas ongoing occupation of Iraq. Emphasizing analysis over manipulation , the film details mistakes of the Bush administration specifically, its mishandling of the post-invasion reconstruction with help from a wealth of journalists, government operatives and military officials.

Unfailingly sober and intelligent, Fergusons documentary creates a stirring, depressing account of how arrogance and lack of experience undermined a great nations plans for spreading democracy, and consequently demolished its standing in the rest of the world.

Narrated by actor Campbell Scott, No End in Sight, which won the 2007 Special Jury Prize at Sundance, retraces the U.S. governments steps after the “fall” of Baghdad in April 2003. Linked together by Scotts voiceover, Ferguson utilizes on-camera interviews with key personnel intimately involved with the rebuilding of Iraq, including former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, the former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell. The film occasionally goes back in time to analyze Iraqs history with its neighbors in the region and to discuss the Bush familys legacy in American politics (as well as in Iraq), dissecting the mistakes made since April 2003–and the repercussions of those tactical errors.

While other documentaries concerning the Iraq War often oversell their anger, resulting in well-intentioned but one-sided diatribes that lack perspective or insight, No End in Sight feels refreshingly and bracingly methodical. The movies dispassionate, journalistic tone can be credited to Ferguson, a political scientist with no background in filmmaking. While this could potentially result in a bloodless, wonky PBS-style educational film, No End in Sight is gripping almost from its first moment as Peter Nashels Philip Glass-like score announces the docus mathematical exactness and hyper-articulate astuteness.

This calm, measured approach is also reflected in Scotts voiceover, which serves as the audiences guide through the films myriad findings. Reading Fergusons text, Scott mostly recounts the facts of the occupation, avoiding sentimental soliloquies or much in the way of opinion. Exhibiting the similarly cool detachment he usually brings to his performances, Scott strikes just the right note of understated authority that allows the films well-reasoned attacks on the Bush administration to assume the force of a lawyerly argument, deliberate but by no means unfeeling.

By underplaying its inherently volatile material, No End in Sight appeals to the viewers common sense rather than their politics or disdain for George W. Bush. Though the film takes the president and several of his key appointees to task particularly Paul Bremer, a key architect of the reconstruction of postwar Iraq, who spent very little time in the country and failed to heed the advice of those who did”No End in Sight” never appears to be carrying out a vendetta against Bush.

What also assists Fergusons case is that the most vicious attacks come not from him, but from journalists and officials who worked in the administration or the military at the time. By offering a collection of disillusioned interview subjects, people who were in Iraq and who hoped to bring freedom and safety to the Iraqis after the removal of Saddam Hussein, Ferguson humanizes the frustrations felt by many at how poorly Bremer bungled the reconstruction. Just as No End in Sight works to remain dispassionate, so too do his subjects, no matter how angry, come across as clear-eyed about the hardships they witnessed.

The docu makes a compelling case that one of the overriding reasons for the postwar reconstructions collapse was the administrations lack of experience, both in conducting military matters and in reorganizing a society it barely understood. Repeatedly, No End in Sight introduces a gaffe in the governments thinking and then offers several eyewitnesses who corroborate and elaborate on the points being made. Specifically, the films explanation of how Americas leadership failures directly caused the insurgency to take hold in Iraq is sickeningly compelling.

While there will be concern from a financial perspective that No End in Sight has come out at a time when many Iraq War documentaries have already entered the marketplace, the movies seemingly late arrival actually works to its advantage. Films such as The Road to Guantanamo and The Ground Truth have felt like exposs into specific heartbreaks brought on by this war, but No End in Sight possesses the air of a meticulously-researched, encyclopedic report. A definitive portrait of the war and its aftermath (if there is such a thing) would take several hours especially since the occupation continues to this day. The films running time (102 minutes) is densely packed while remaining easy to absorb.

“No End in Sight” superbly encompasses many aspects of other documentaries as part of its overall thrust. The turmoil of physically and emotionally damaged troops (seen in The Ground Truth and The War Tapes), the failures of Bush and his top advisors to adequately prepare themselves for what would transpire in Iraq (Fahrenheit 9/11), and the accounts of Iraqis who suffered firsthand during the war and occupation (Iraq in Fragments) are all part of Fergusons focus. Amazingly, these different components dont feel marginalized or simplified. Instead, No End in Sight works these points into its overall argument, and the filmmakers organizational lan is stunning.

Every Iraq War documentary has offered at least something to recommend it. But none of them has been as brutally perceptive as No End in Sight. With economy and rigor, Charles Ferguson has crafted a film that transcends political affiliations to address precisely how governments and their leaders can fail horribly through mismanagement and overconfidence. Viewers just looking for easy swipes at our current president will no doubt be amused, but the film is more interested in looking toward Americas uncertain future.

Though the United States continues to operate in Iraq without a timetable for departure, the film argues that the graver long-term repercussions could be an inescapable national debt and a permanent damaging of the countrys reputation throughout the world. The films surface may be calm and measured, but the simmering rage beneath is unmistakable. No End in Sight may prove a prophetic title, not just in its relation to this never-ending war but also for what its failures may cost America down the line.

Credits

Running time: 102 minutes

Director: Charles Ferguson
Production company: Representation Pictures
US Distribution: Magnolia Films
Producers: Jennie Amias, Jessie Vogelson, Charles Ferguson
Executive Producer: Alex Gibney
Writer: Charles Ferguson
Editors: Chad Buck, Cindy Lee
Cinematography: Antonio Rossi
Narrator: Campbell Scott