Architects of war take center stage in 'No End'

If Vietnam became known as the living-room war because it was the first national conflict that showed up in vivid color on America's television sets, then the Iraq war could arguably be called the first multiplex war. From the start, documentary filmmakers have been on a sort of virtual front line, raising questions about the war and providing vivid pictures from the urban battlefield with an immediacy that has put much of the mainstream media, reduced to following the official story, to shame.

Michael Moore captured the drumbeat to war in 2004's "Fahrenheit 9/11." Other films have followed U.S. military units into battle (Patricia Foulkrod's "The Ground Truth," Ian Olds and Garrett Scott's "Operation Dreamland") and looked at the effects of the war on Iraqis themselves (James Longley's "Iraq in Fragments"). Now comes Charles Ferguson's "No End in Sight," winner of the Documentary Special Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Magnolia Pictures is releasing the film next week in New York and the following week in Los Angeles.

Trained as a political scientist and a former senior fellow at Washington's Brookings Institute, Ferguson has the sort of cultural bona fides that would have allowed him to publish a book about the administration's decisions that led to the current quagmire. But Ferguson, who'd long harbored an interest in filmmaking, says he wanted to reach a larger audience.

"Unfortunately, people in America don't read books," he says. "There are already a dozen good works about the war, but they probably have a combined circulation of a million at most. If this film is successful, it could reach 5 million people. If it does better than that, it could reach 10 or 20 million."

Having sold the software company he co-founded, Vermeer Technologies, to Microsoft in the 1990s, Ferguson used his own funds, about $2 million, to back the docu under his Representational Pictures banner. With docu vet Alex Gibney serving as mentor and exec producer, Ferguson visited Iraq in 2005 and set about interviewing the architects of the war.

If he had begun any earlier, a number of his interview subjects might have refused to step forward. But by the time Ferguson began the film, the war was already in a downward spiral, and important figures from its early days were willing to address, some shaking their heads sorrowfully, what had gone wrong.

"No End" pays particular attention to what Ferguson considers critical blunders: the de-Ba'athification of Iraq, which deprived the country of many of the teachers, engineers and bureaucrats who might have helped it to function, and the disbanding of the military, which drove thousands of Iraqis to join the insurgency. As the docu reconstructs it, those decisions were made by the small cabal of war architects surrounding Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney before they dispatched Paul Bremer to oversee the Coalition Provisional Authority. The film makes clear that those already in the country, like Gen. Jay Garner, who initially headed the occupation, and Col. Paul Hughes, who'd been assigned to reorganize the Iraqi Army, weren't even consulted.

After his film's Sundance premiere, Ferguson tightened it up a bit. The director, who admits he was originally sympathetic to the war's goals, recounts its missteps with rigorous analysis. But the film is also mournful as it looks at the toll on both the Iraqi people and the U.S. military.

"No End" doesn't address the current surge. "I didn't feel any need to make it more current," Ferguson says. "It is not pretending to be a prediction (of where the war is heading). It is intended to show what happened and how we got there."