'No End' an eye opener for first-timer Ferguson
EmptyPolicy wonk-turned-rookie filmmaker Charles Ferguson's "No End in Sight," making its debut this month as one of 16 films in the documentary competition at the Sundance Film Festival, is among several docus this year about the war on terrorism.
Ferguson gained access to experienced players on the ground in Iraq, including then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage; Gen. Jay Garner; Barbara Bodine; coordinator for central Iraq in charge of Baghdad; and Col. Paul Hughes, who explains with all-too-vivid candor how Iraqi administrator L. Paul Bremer came into Iraq and swiftly made enormous decisions with devastating consequences as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. "No End" clearly lays out what happened in 2003 and '04 from the inside out -- at a time when the new, Democrat-controlled Congress is taking a hard look at the U.S.' Iraq policy.
The film was fully financed by Ferguson, who earned his doctorate in foreign affairs at MIT and later sold his Silicon Valley software company, Vermeer Technologies, to Microsoft for about $133 million. His 1999 tell-all book, "High Stakes, No Prisoners: A Winner's Tale of Greed and Glory in the Internet Wars," is angry, analytic and piercingly frank.
So is "No End," which debuts Monday in Park City and is being sold by ubiquitous attorney John Sloss. On Tuesday morning, several participants in the film will take part in a panel. Garner will participate via satellite, joining Bodine and the articulate, Harvard-educated Marine Lt. Seth Moulton.
Other Iraq-themed films at this year's festival include "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib," an expose of the 2003 abuses at the notorious Iraqi prison, from HBO's documentary unit headed Sheila Nevins, directed by Rory Kennedy; the Danish film "Enemies of Happiness," which digs into conditions in Afghanistan; and, on the dramatic side of the ledger and one of the most eagerly anticipated Sundance unveilings, James C. Strouse's "Grace Is Gone," starring John Cusack as a parent grieving for his wife, killed in the Iraq War. It remains to be seen what the market is for these films.
None of the recent crop of theatrically released Iraq-related docus has performed as strongly at the boxoffice as Michael Moore's rousingly emotional and partisan anti-establishment 2004 diatribe, "Fahrenheit 9/11," which won the Festival de Cannes' Palme d'Or and is the highest-grossing docu ever at $119 million domestically. None of the more conventional war docus that have followed -- "Iraq in Fragments," "The Ground Truth," "The Road to Guantanamo," "Why We Fight" and "The War Tapes" -- has cracked the $1 million mark.
But "No End" could do better than that because it boasts the same assets as 2005's Oscar-nominated Sundance docu "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," which grossed more than $4 million: dogged reporting, penetrating insight and a strong, angry point of view. It is not coincidental that "Enron" screenwriter-director Alex Gibney helped Ferguson on "No End" as executive producer.
Ferguson had the sense to realize that his friends who were telling him not to make the film were right about one thing: He needed help from someone more experienced. An admirer of "Enron," he turned to Gibney, who is something of a documentary brand name with such films as "Lightning in a Bottle" and "The Fifties."
"It was the weirdest experience," says Gibney, who got a call from Ferguson out of the blue in late 2005. "He had never made a film before. He'd invented a Web construction program and sold it for a zillion dollars. He was a political science professor. He knew a lot of people in the foreign-policy arena. He'd done some writing. He wanted to do a film about the occupation of Iraq. He came to New York, and we discussed it. The subject was important. 'Would you help me?' I gingerly went forward: 'Let's see how it goes.' "
Gibney -- while working on his own Afghanistan prison expose, "Taxi to the Dark Side," and a Hunter S. Thompson docu -- taught filmmaking 101 to Ferguson, offering support and guidance every step along the way, especially when it came time to edit a five-hour rough cut. But "it's Charles' film," he says. "I'd focus him, helped him hire the cinematographer. He was trying to do too many things. I helped him with clarity. He was a quick learner. He had a lot of resources."
Although Ferguson is reluctant to discuss it, he sank almost $2 million into the movie. "I tried to make it clear, factual: Here's what happened. I tried to keep out theorizing and grand statements. I want the film to be widely seen by a lot of people so they can come to understand what happened there," he says.
Much of that money went into a month of filming in Iraq, which was extremely dangerous. The fledgling filmmaker spent about $7,000 a day on an armored Mercedes and a large Kurdish security detail armed with machine guns. He went into the streets incognito, never for more than 20 minutes, never to the same place twice. Ferguson gained extraordinary access to people who were close to the action and willing to say astonishing things.
The film captures, in the compressed time period just before and after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, a litany of often unbelievable mistakes seemingly made on the basis of whimsy. There was an apparent lack of preparation, lack of a plan and a lack of troops. No martial law was declared. Widespread looting wasn't stopped, costing the Iraqis their cultural heritage. "It was a free-for-all," one observer says. The only place protected by the U.S. military, according to the film, was the oil ministry. (Vice president Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz all declined Ferguson's interview requests.)
While the Americans did little to restore order or basic infrastructure, perhaps Bremer's most ill-advised move -- which was decided before he had even arrived in Iraq -- was disbanding the Iraqi military, the Republican Guard and the secret police, sending about 500,000 armed men into resentful unemployment. Ferguson contends that rounding up many of these people later on and imprisoning them indefinitely in Abu Ghraib only added to a general Iraqi sense that the Americans did not care about them. The 45,000 private military contractors didn't help the situation. The movie shows video footage shot by one rogue contractor of willful sniper fire at civilians in cars. It looks like a video game. By 2004, the relationship between the Iraqis and the military had become toxic.
"I see bullets in their eyes," says one observer in Iraq, still aghast that the military didn't have the time or energy to retrieve known weapons caches that were left open for anyone to loot. Searching for Saddam appeared to be the first priority.
"The Bush administration's irresponsible arrogance is jaw-dropping," Gibney says. "In the old days, the networks might have done this story, but they're too chicken now. This movie has a point of view arrived at after considering all the evidence."
It's devastating to see Garner's regret that he didn't bang on the door and force the powers that be to listen. But it seems that they weren't interested in what he had to say. "The administration is clearly so convinced of its own rectitude, such believers in executive power, which they extended to the pro-counsel of Iraq," Gibney says.
Ferguson says he supported the Iraq War at first. "I was not at all left wing," he declares. "I hoped the war would turn out well. Then I saw what happened. I started seeing a darker side." In 2004, after talking to many of the people he knew in foreign affairs, he thought, "someone has to make a movie about this. I wanted to tell the truth. Hopefully my training equipped me to think about these questions well. I was stunned at what these people told me." Ferguson plans to write a book and to post his 3,000 pages of transcripts at www.noendinsightthemovie.com.
Ferguson's film ends with a devastating 2003 clip of President Bush at the start of the war, earnestly promising, "We will bring to the Iraqi people food, medicine and supplies and freedom." But, summing up, a clear-eyed Moulton says, "Don't tell me this is the best America can do."