In the 1974 Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds, director Peter Davis interviewed inner-circle war hawk Walt Rostow. This was five years after Rostow had exited his National Security Affairs post, and well after the doomed strategies developed by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson had been altered to suit both the realities of Southeast Asia and the larger Cold War geopolitical context. Rostow was not necessarily in a position where he still needed to cover himself politically; he would not have been either the first or the most important architects of the Vietnam war to renounce those early policies or to claim that mistakes were made. But in the film, when Davis asks, “How did we get to be in Vietnam?”, Rostow becomes annoyed and aggressive. “Are you really asking me this goddamned question?”, he demands, then indulges Davis with a condescending history lesson. It’s a revealing moment of bitterness—one that found its counterpart in Robert McNamara’s two-hour Fog of War stonewall 30 years later, and that haunted my viewing of Charles Ferguson’s Iraq war documentary No End in Sight.
Much has been made of No End in Sight’s exact focus, and its origins in Ferguson’s academic background. (He holds a B.A. in mathematics and a Ph.D. in political science, and is a former senior fellow of the Brookings Institution and the co-founder of Vermeer Technologies.) The movie has been positioned as historical analysis, and underlines this ambition from the start with a clip of Donald Rumsfeld declaring in his farewell speech that history will record the Bush administration’s actions. But the crux of any scholarly argument lies in its striving for objectivity, and Ferguson too often takes the easy jab over the penetrating question or insight. Davis and Morris were granted rare private audiences with fathers of war, but they did not abuse the privilege; Davis witnessed the defensive reaction of a man whose wound had been plucked open, and Morris doggedly pursued McNamara’s humanity to the point where The Fog of War suggested a record of a lost chess match.
Ferguson’s film lacks access to similarly influential figures, and he addresses this by plastering the screen with the huge disclaimer “...refused to be interviewed for this film” whenever a subject’s input might have clarified issues or explained his or her actions. The device teases laughs from the audience, but they’re hollow laughs, because we know that prominent war-makers would never consent to be interviewed for a documentary of this type while the conflict was still ongoing. I wondered instead what questions Ferguson would have posed to Rumsfeld or Cheney if given the opportunity. Their responses might have been no more helpful than Rostow’s or McNamara’s, but they would have been preferable to Ferguson’s title cards, which are nothing more than a cynical acceptance of the architects’ refusal of accountability: visual name-calling. While No End in Sight makes it clear that those responsible for the Iraq mess deserve every punch thrown at them, there is, for lack of a better word, a humane way to deal with them.
In contrast to the nuanced portraits of uninterviewed figures in David Halberstam’s epic nonfiction book The Best and the Brightest, Ferguson’s approach disallows sympathy or understanding. At a crucial stage in the reconstruction, one of Ferguson’s interview subjects recounts that one of his recent students, a young woman with no experience in metropolitan planning, was put in charge of Baghdad’s traffic system. That disclosure is jaw-dropping in itself, yet Ferguson can’t resist a visual punchline: shots of Baghdad traffic, cars going every which way. Elsewhere, senior CPA advisor Walter Slocombe—arguably the most culpable interview subject who agreed to appear in Rostow’s documentary, stutters and mutters through his explanations. This unsatisfying, not-too-illuminating interview might point toward larger accountability problems within the government, but it’s mainly just uncomfortable viewing.
Maybe No End in Sight needed another two hours in length, like Spike Lee’s extraordinary When The Levees Broke, a superior “What the hell is wrong with our government?” documentary. Rather that choose between outrage or analysis, Lee embraced both, showing righteous anger while detailing the horrors that justified it. Whether the citizens’ suffering stemmed from governmental incompetence or God and the weather, they had a right to be pissed off. The last line of Ferguson’s film, spoken by a disillusioned veteran - “If this is the best America can do, that makes me angry”—aims for a similarly bitter note, but it seems a weak plea because the preceding two hours tempered the outrage. Alternatively, Jennifer Baichwal’s recent documentary Manufactured Landscapes excoriated China’s environmental policy by eschewing emotion in favor of aesthetic distance. By refusing to pass judgment, Baichwal unearthed a powerful global message; the film devastates on both human and political levels in a way that’s quite different from Levees. No one in Manufactured Landscapes would dare say, as one figure does in No End in Sight, that “Whatever they were smoking must’ve been really good,” because it would ring as a glib, after-the-fact assessment. Baichwal’s film is not a work of scholarship, but by pursuing a version of objectivity, it attains a power comparable to the best historical narratives.
Through ferocity or cool detachment, No End in Sight should have built to an explosion, but it fizzles out. The facts are moving, but the film is not. Ferguson’s movie is a huge disappointment precisely because it stands apart from the recent glut of Iraq documentaries by trying to paint a larger picture of the war’s failure. The filmmaker shows us that we’re right to be mad as hell, and that’s exactly the problem—he’d rather show anger than explain or instill it.
House contributor Brad LaBonte lives and writes in New York City.