No End in Sight (2007)

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No End in Sight
Dir. Charles Ferguson
Premiered at Sundance January 22, 2007

In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, violating international law. When the US took the initiative by pushing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s troops out of Kuwait, no expense was spared: the military had its biggest mobilization since World War II. President George H.W. Bush insisted “this will not be another Vietnam.” And he kept that promise.

But if it’s true that our leaders are always fighting the last war, God forbid an easy victory. That is the lesson, and the only lesson, of Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight.

Covering the willful failure of US forces to prepare properly for an invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, No End in Sight largely glosses over the reasoning behind the war. While discussing the failures of intelligence– possibly deliberate– that led to the war happening is a legitimate discussion, it was also the only discussion the culture at large was having, particularly in the mid-2000s because of a really complicated scandal that I won’t bother trying to explain. And as most people who were against the war in Iraq were not pacifists, its bears analyzing the profound arrogance that led us, by the time of this documentary’s release, into the very nadir of one of America’s greatest military disasters.

As Ferguson interviews Iraqi civilians, combat veterans, policy experts, and administrators, most notably former Deputy Secretary of State (and not actor) Richard Armitage, a portrait of the Bush administration’s thought process emerges that is both embarrassing and terrifying. Plans had been made for the Iraq War since the election. It’s a testament to the administration’s laser focus on somehow engineering the Iraq War to be the defining struggle of a new generation, as if such things can be scheduled. In a matter of weeks, the planners assured, postwar Iraq would be harmonious, pro-America, led by Iraqi exile and notorious fraudster Ahmed Chalabi, and free of US combat troops.

And it was going to be awesome. It would be fought as cheaply as possible, using a fraction of the troops actually needed, with no armor, no extra batteries, no spare tires, no extra water. None of the people in the war planning trust had served in combat, most spoke no Arabic and had never been to the Middle East, and many still refused to visit. Never since Vietnam had US policymakers been so sure of success in a war purely on the grounds that they were Americans, and thus winners.

When the total absence of adequate troops enabled order to break down in the streets of Iraq, the official US policy was that the war was over, and any claims to the contrary were bad for morale. The film’s subjects, people who understood Iraq, were rebuffed. The White House refused to read any serious analysis and dismissed any serious consideration as naysaying and bad for morale.

No End in Sight holds up decently as a historical document. If you want to do this done wrong, dated, and incoherent, watch Fahrenheit 9/11. This is the adult version. Much like Fahrenheit 9/11, though, it consists of a lot of in-the-moment fury, and as a result gets competitive. For every paragraph I wrote above, the film has four or five people say the same thing over and over. Furthermore, the film offers little to no insight into the political culture that refused to hear any bad news, and while Cheney and Rumsfeld refused to participate in the film, their involvement wasn’t necessary for the PBS newsmagazine Frontline to do an excellent exposé on them around the same time. Frontline seems more like where this movie belongs. And hey, I love TV documentaries, I discovered the entire medium through television, but this is not a visual presentation worthy of the Sundance Film Festival.

How Did It Do?
No End in Sight was picked up by Magnolia, who released the film into theaters in July 2007, where it earned $1.4 million, a 96% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, and an Academy Award nomination for best Documentary Feature. The film made a lot of year-end top-ten lists, and while the critical enthusiasm for the film was understandable at the time, this is a little extreme. Eleven movies in, it’s not at all clear that 2007 was a great movie year, but we’re getting there. No End in Sight isn’t even the best movie of this rather mediocre Sundance; it’s not coming close to my year-end faves.

Next Time: Son of Rambow

The Children of Theatre Street (1977)

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The Children of Theatre Street
Dir. Robert Dornhelm and Earle Mack
Premiered May 9, 1977

The 1970s were an unusual time in both the United States and Russia. With Eastern Bloc economies stagnating, the Soviet Union was increasingly willing to reach out and make agreements with the west in a time known as Détente. As a result, contemporary Russian culture was accessible to Americans in a major way for the first time since the Second World War; Russian organizations were happy to oblige, not least due to the propaganda value, and so we got projects like The Children of Theatre Street, Robert Dornhelm’s documentary on Leningrad’s prestigious Kirov School of Ballet.

My knowledge of pre-1980s documentaries is pretty sparse, but The Children of Theatre Street is the earliest example I’ve seen of the “kids doing really intense shit” genre– think of a less involved Russian version of Hoop Dreams and you have some idea what this movie is about. Narrated by Grace Kelly, the film begins with the very newest, youngest recruits to the highly competitive academy being constantly judged for their performances, weighed, measured, and overall intimidated by the legendary dancers that have come before them– the Kirov School having been in continuous operation since the reign of Peter the Great. The mood initially seems kind of exploitative; were these American children, I’d be wary of overcompensating stage parents and the like. But it quickly becomes clear that these kids want to be there, that this is truly their passion, and that parents have no involvement whatsoever (many if not most came from places far from Leningrad, and haven’t seen their parents in years).

The documentary then expands to include the promising students of the Kirov’s graduating class, through whom we get a better idea of what is going on in the Soviet Union’s biggest cultural export, and get the sense that the ballet, much like baseball in Cuba or cinema in Iran, is something of a way out.

Were The Children of Theatre Street made now, or even twenty years ago, it would probably be much more focused on a core of students, who would be more fleshed out. I don’t know how much of that difference was due to different trends in documentary filmmaking or if the Soviet Authorities frowned on such individual perspective, but it’s nevertheless the best documentary of the year I’ve seen so far.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
(1) The Soviet Union exists, and (2) western film crews are free to go see it.

Next Time: Iphigenia

Pumping Iron (1977)

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Pumping Iron
Dir. Robert Fiore and George Butler
Premiered January 18, 1977

Noted for its introduction of future action star and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to the wider world, 1977’s Pumping Iron is regarded by an overwhelming number of critics as one of the foremost documentaries of the 1970s. If that truly is the case, I’m not looking forward to other docs in this project, because I found it to be a singularly mediocre, uninvolving film.

As uncomfortable as I am criticizing any movie for its subject, said subject made me squirm even more. My father once told me that weightlifters lift weights and bodybuilders look at themselves in the mirror, and Pumping Iron does nothing to dispell that statement, because whereas weightlifting is an Olympic sport, bodybuilding is shown to be the stuff of glorified beauty pageants, such as “Mr. Olympia ’75,” where a young Brooklyn upstart named Lou Ferrigno challenges young Mr. Schwarzenegger for his multiple-year championship. Ferrigno is likable enough, but most of the other competitors evince a litany of overcompensating vanity-related complexes. I’m sure there’s someone else who could talk about the aftermath of the Vietnam War and its toxic impact on American masculinity, but this would be a perfect example.

The film’s choice to depict bodybuilding so uncritically is as ineffective as it is discomforting. Hovering stylistically between exploitation film and television advertisement, Pumping Iron feels as inoffensive and reassuring as a One Direction concert movie. There is a constant air of desperation and mental illness that is never addressed, as if the film were to be credited on the strength of beefcake alone. Forty years on, this comes off even sleazier than if directors Robert Fiore and George Butler had done a hatchet job. Pumping Iron is currently on Netflix, and while anthropologically interesting, I wouldn’t say it’s worth your time. My key rubric for a documentary is whether it gets me interested in the subject, if only for ninety minutes, and this certainly didn’t.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Avowedly heterosexual men marvel unselfconsciously at the near-nude male form.

How Did It Do?
Pumping Iron garnered a 96% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. I couldn’t find information on its grosses, but with a budget of $1 million and a fond memory that lives on today, I suspect it did well. Would that data from before 1981 were more comprehensive and publicly available; I would’ve loved to see the demographic breakdowns on this thing.

Lou Ferrigno parlayed his reputation from the film into a television career as The Incredible Hulk. Of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger has been a Hollywood fixture ever since. And director George Butler, who is still alive received a premature memorial in 2008 on Charlie Rose, because Charlie Rose.

Next Time: Operation Thunderbolt