A different kind of documentary

`No End' filmmakers take analytical, humane approach to dissecting Iraq war

August 12, 2007|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Whether you regard him as the chief provocateur or merely the "clown prince" of America's documentary revolution, Michael Moore has made the genre more direct, personal and aggressively entertaining -- primarily by placing himself at the center of his movies, as a humorous character and commentator.

While Moore has been dominating the headlines, other documentarians have been establishing their own beachheads on different fronts. They resist playing to the cheap seats or sacrificing substance to polemic. They achieve the emotions and nuances of feature films through style, characterization and total immersion in their subjects.

The best of them, such as Alex Gibney, the Oscar-nominated director of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the executive producer of No End in Sight, seek an intimacy that's more implicit and piercing than Moore's regular-guy camaraderie.

No End in Sight's director, Charles Ferguson, engulfs you in the chaos of Iraq. But this political science Ph.D. and technology entrepreneur also grips you by the throat with the all-too-human regrets of fighters and diplomats who feel they could have settled the war and won the peace. The movie lays out such a lucid, damning account of incompetence and mismanagement that you leave it both infuriated and clearheaded.

And that's partly because of the equally humane and analytical approach born of Ferguson and Gibney's collaboration.

"Alex did nudge me into more 'character-building,'" says Ferguson, "and I took his advice partially but not completely -- there's my personality and background."

Ferguson, 52, comes from high-powered academia. Gibney, 53, is a second-generation journalist who came of age surrounded by the films of '70s auteurs.

"I felt back then that journalism had become an Establishment occupation," he says over the phone between shots on his latest film, a doc about the Jack Abramoff lobbyist scandal. "I was more interested in what was happening in the movies of Scorsese and Lucas and Coppola."

But as Gibney became a contemporary documentary master, he found himself using traditional journalistic approaches as well as the novelistic texture, irony and characters of the nonfiction that dominated national discussion in his college years, from Norman Mailer to Tom Wolfe. "And also," he says, "doing with images what the New Journalists were doing with language."

In other words, he treated documentary filmmaking as an individualistic art, with a commitment that critics usually sense only in more conventional "creative" artists.

Ferguson, a first-time director, approached Gibney to be the executive producer of No End in Sight. It was the first of many choices that would turn his expose of the strategy vacuum in Iraq into a work of documentary art and a social-political wake-up call. Ferguson brings extraordinary credentials to his first foray into moviemaking: His Ph.D. comes from M.I.T.; he co-founded Vermeer Technologies, which he sold to Microsoft in 1996; he has been a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

To Gibney, the result is a movie about Iraq that no one else could have made. "Charles is a policy wonk," says Gibney. "Between his experience as a businessman and the way he's been steeped in foreign policy, you feel you get inside the decision-making process."

Catalog of errors

Ferguson, like Gibney, enjoys Michael Moore. But Ferguson is proud to say that unlike with Moore's Fahrenheit 911, you can't leave No End in Sight thinking that some mysterious quid pro quo between the Bushes and the Saudis resulted in this war. For Ferguson, the devil really is in the details. His movie is a relentless, riveting catalog of errors of omission, commission and accident.

No End in Sight offers visceral testimony to the upheaval on the ground and a view of mismanaged power and resources that swamps even the white-collar crimes Gibney depicts in Enron.

Over the phone from Berkeley, Calif., Ferguson, who sold Vermeer in 1996 for $133 million, recalls the mainstream-media anticipation of President Bush becoming "the first MBA president," a chief executive who was going to run the country like a well-tooled corporation.

Although Ferguson never brings himself into the narrative, his business experience informs the movie's critique of Bush's management style.

"He didn't run his company the way I tried to run mine," Ferguson says, dryly. "One thing that's important is to listen to the people you work with."

Bush was hailed, early on, for delegating tasks.

"It's one thing to delegate, another thing to check out of the discussion," Ferguson says. "When the chairman of the National Intelligence Council produces an assessment on the growth of the insurgency, you should read it. Or at least read the one-page executive summary."

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