The Final Cut

Rage at the Machine

In an era of shout-first-and-ask questions-later docs, ''No End in Sight'' is something special: A film about the war in Iraq that is riveting, coolly intense, and unimpeachable. So why isn't it a hit?

NO END IN SIGHT In his documentary, Ferguson ''wants to create an unimpeachable piece of explanatory journalism, and he does,'' Harris says
NO END IN SIGHT In his documentary, Ferguson ''wants to create an unimpeachable piece of explanatory journalism, and he does,'' Harris says

Mark Harris on why you should see ''No End in Sight''

For those of us who love movies and write about them for a living, there's almost nothing more frustrating than seeing a film that you admire tremendously, and knowing that whatever your arsenal of passion or rhetoric may contain, it's probably not going to be enough to convince anyone to go. The most powerful and intelligent movie I've seen this summer deserves a much larger audience than it's getting. It's called No End in Sight, and it's a documentary about the war in Iraq.

Click. I just felt your receptors switch off, your interest flee to the margins, your thumb move ominously to the corner of the page (or the mouse). I don't blame you. The phrase ''Iraq documentary'' can, at this point, stir many feelings in avid moviegoers, none of which is likely to inspire a trip to the theater. When my colleague Owen Gleiberman called No End in Sight ''coolheaded and devastating'' in an impassioned ''A'' review a few weeks ago, I thought, Great, I'll be sure to Netflix that. I also thought, in no particular order: Another Iraq documentary?; I already know how I feel about the war, so can't I skip this?; and Ugh — I have outrage fatigue.

If you live in a large city, a dozen or more movies jostle for attention every week, all with advertisements bearing a quote from at least one critic who thinks it's ''mind-blowing'' or ''a knockout!'' (Maxim guy, you might want to raise that bar a bit.) Most of the smaller films competing for your dollars, unless they boast a star or the promotional heft of a studio-financed label like Miramax or Paramount Vantage, can barely issue a plaintive look-over-here bleat before they quietly expire, leaving no trace but a few of those sad little illustrations of parenthetical laurel leaves telling you that this movie played at some film festival somewhere, some time ago. Inevitably, we make very quick decisions about what we'll skip. Too depressing, stupid title, actor from a TV show we hate, playing only in that one-screen theater that smells, quote calling it ''wacky'' or ''luminous'' — all can be instant rule-outs. Every Friday, we thin the herd ruthlessly. No End in Sight has now been around for a month, an eternity for an indie documentary hoping to gain traction. Here are two reasons it should:

1. It's made by someone who knows more than you do, so you're guaranteed to come away from it smarter. As strange as it may sound in a world momentarily defined by the anyone-can-do-anything YouTube ethos, expertise turns out to count for something. Writer-director Charles Ferguson is not a filmmaker by trade — he's a political scientist with a degree from MIT. In No End in Sight, he's got a goal that's both complex and specific: He wants to explain, point by point and with scrupulous accuracy, exactly what U.S. mistakes after the start of the Iraq war led to the Iraqi insurgency. If you have all of those answers at your fingertips, you're excused, and see you next column. I didn't, and the precision with which Ferguson lays them out is riveting.

2. This movie doesn't fetishize outrage. It seems to have been made with the kind of calm focus that is bred by deep anger, but it always stays on mission. In an era of shout-first-ask-questions-later filmmaking, Ferguson's frosty intensity is exciting. These days, many political documentaries are the equivalent of a shaken fist. When a documentarian's need to display his sense of outrage overwhelms his exploration of whatever he's inflamed about, the movie that results, however valuable, can be dismissed too easily as a provocation or an exercise in narcissism by people who don't like its politics.

Ferguson just doesn't go there. He's not especially interested in his outrage, or yours. He's got something bigger on his mind; he wants to create an unimpeachable piece of explanatory journalism, and he does. This does not, miraculously, turn out to necessitate chasing someone with a catch-the-predator-cam or yelling at passersby with a bullhorn. Rather, it involves dozens of interviews, many with people who were direct witnesses to, and sometimes participants in, the catastrophic chain of decisions that has brought us to this moment in our history and Iraq's.

If No End in Sight trafficked in argumentative extremes or questionable assertions, it might be doing more business. Fox News and right-wing radio would be in full holler, creating the kind of jumped-up controversy that can get a small movie noticed. But nobody has managed to poke any real holes in Ferguson's work, perhaps because its most damning moments come directly from the mouths of one former Bush official after another, explaining with long-overdue sobriety what went wrong and how. I don't know anyone who has seen the headlines from Iraq in the last few years and not asked, whether in anger, despair, or simple uncertainty, ''What have we done?'' Here's a movie that provides the beginnings of an answer. It is mind-blowing. And a knockout. Give it a try.

Originally posted Aug 23, 2007 Published in issue #951 Aug 31, 2007 Order article reprints
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