Journalists from around the world congregated in Midtown last week to discuss a much-hyped piece of art that came with a devastating closing chapter — and no, it had nothing to do with Harry Potter.
The journalists were members of the Overseas Press Club, and they congregated Tuesday night to watch a screening of a new documentary titled "No End In Sight," which won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year and is poised to explode onto the political scene this weekend in both New York and Washington, D.C., in the midst of heated congressional debates concerning the number and duration of American troops in Iraq.
Returning to those early days in 2003, just after the U.S. Army stormed through the deserts of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein, the director Craig Ferguson gains access to some of the most prominent people involved with the post-invasion occupation and carefully lays out the systematic blunders — at best a series of shortsighted mistakes, at worst criminally negligent oversight — that effectively set the stage for America's failure amid Iraq's current civil war.
Shortly after the applause dissipated last week at the close of the film, Mr. Ferguson took the stage along with two of the most outraged officials who appeared in the film. They were joined by a former deputy secretary of State, Richard Armitage; a former ambassador, Barbara Bodine, who was initially put in charge of Baghdad through the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, and Colonel Paul Hughes, who was charged with leading the efforts to reorganize the Iraqi army — that is, until the Coalition Provisional Authority decreed the army would be disbanded.
Their collective assessment of the situation was less than encouraging.
"It's a Greek tragedy and we're center stage," an animated and agitated Col. Hughes said in response to one reporter's question, not just about the on-the-ground conditions in Iraq but also about what he called a "wholly militarized foreign policy" that is effectively gutting the State Department. "We know how it's going to end, and we are not getting off easy … I don't hear one member within the halls of Congress demanding removal of the troops proposing what else to do."
In the movie, Col. Hughes lays out some of the most scathing criticisms of the Bush administration's earliest decisions during the war in Iraq. He decries the disbanding of the Iraqi military as a catastrophic decision that left nearly 500,000 irate and "armed men" without the means to provide for their families, forcing them to turn to the insurgency as a way of stealing needed food and repairing wounded pride.
In a similar fashion, Ms. Bodine criticizes the administration in the film for dispatching her and others on an impossible mission: to stabilize a country thrown into chaos due in large part to America's policy not to interfere with the postwar looting, and to rebuild a society despite lacking the needed translators, equipment (she notes that they didn't even have telephones early on), or political autonomy. During the post-film discussion, Ms. Bodine said the movie is arriving in theaters at a vital time in the political process.
"We can't go back and correct the mistakes of the past, but it's essential that we're having the current debate about a policy change," she said. "It's not a military problem; even the Iraq Study Group said it's a political, a diplomatic problem."
Naturally, as "No End In Sight" arrives in theaters amid the hullabahoo of "Harry Potter" and "The Simpsons Movie," one has to wonder about the potential of this documentary, steeped in the inner-workings of global policy and the bleak horrors of war, to attract a mainstream audience. What sorts of moviegoers will want to see this film? And will they come out, mid-summer no less, for a thorough analysis of where the American-led liberation of Iraq went wrong?
"We have firsthand experience with this," Mr. Ferguson said. "At Sundance, we witnessed so much support for the film. For all the screenings there, we had full theaters, even on the largest screen — which we saw as an enormous endorsement of the film by programmers — and the people who came were extremely emotional and involved."
The director also pointed to an unusual place for evidence that "No End In Sight" is striking a chord with average citizens actively engaged in the debate about whether to leave Iraq: YouTube. He noted that three weeks ago, the film's trailer was uploaded to YouTube and was viewed 20,000 times in the span of two weeks. But more recently, he said, that number has been accelerating. "150,000 people have viewed it over the last week alone," he said, "and yesterday, 70,000 people watched it. I think it suggests that people are very interested in the film."
Asked why he chose to make yet another film about Iraq, which, from "Gunner Palace" to "The War Tapes," has been thoroughly examined in recent documentaries, Mr. Ferguson said it was a simple matter: This was an obvious story of political shortsightedness and absent planning that was not being told anywhere else. His initial plan was to make the film about the post-occupation struggles in 2004, but friends dissuaded him.
"It was such an obvious story that I thought, ‘No doubt with all these Iraq movies being made, this story will be out there soon.' But the more I waited, the more I realized those movies weren't being made, and that I would have to do it myself." He now hopes that the movie will be included in the queue of titles chosen for special congressional screenings in Washington.
Ms. Bodine said that the movie is not only hitting theaters at just the right time, but that "No End In Sight" has the potential to actually affect the direction of public debate.
"It's coming out at the same time as debates on the Hill and at a time when presidential campaigns have rejuvenated public debate," she said. "If this was before, during the '06 election when people were not really talking about leaving Iraq, it would be a different story. But what you'll find, speaking as someone who only goes to the movies occasionally, is that this is part of the dialogue occurring today, and that it actually adds to the depth of the dialogue."
So New Yorkers have a full deck of options this weekend. What will it be: a big-screen "Simpsons" adventure, an Adam Sandler buddy comedy, a Catherine Zeta-Jones kitchen romance, or a step-by-step accounting of where Iraq went wrong?