No End in Sight
Produced by Representational Pictures
Directed and written by Charles Ferguson
Distributed by Magnolia Pictures

The Bourne Ultimatum
Produced and distributed by Universal Pictures
Directed by Paul Greengrass
Screenplay by Tony Gilroy and Scott Z. Burns

The Simpsons Movie
Produced and distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Directed by David Silverman
Screenplay by James L. Brooks and Matt Groening

Charles Ferguson is a man of parts.  A former intelligence analyst, a highly successful internet entrepreneur, and a journalism professor, he decided last year to add another credit to his résumé and make a documentary on the Iraq war.  The result is a film that pillories George W. Bush and his administration for impeachable malfeasance.

Since No End in Sight is Ferguson’s first film, and since he made it largely with his own money, you would expect a certain extravagance in tone, a crowing over his subjects’ demonstrable culpability, but there is nothing of the kind.  Unlike Michael Moore, Ferguson is not one for pranks or sneering.  His approach is measured, dispassionate, and thorough.  He is content to let facts speak for themselves without resorting to mockery or invective.  His film is all the more devastating for his restraint.  Not that he’s saying anything new.  Those who have followed current events will be familiar with most of what he discloses.  The power of his film resides in its gathering of the damning evidence onto 102 minutes’ worth of celluloid.  Ferguson has done his fellow citizens an invaluable service.  If only they will watch his documentary, they will be disabused of the propaganda-induced notion embraced by more than half of America’s people that Saddam Hussein was allied with Osama bin Laden and that Saddam bore personal responsibility for the attacks of September 11.

Using file footage interspersed with interviews with key figures involved in the invasion and subsequent occupation, Ferguson patiently reveals how a group of arrogant, ideological bullies led by Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and Richard Perle, among others, hijacked our Department of Defense to wage a preemptive and wholly unnecessary war.  This bellicose cadre, only one of whom has military service, were beating the war drums since 1997, when the Project for a New American Century was created by reigning neoconservatives, including themselves, and began preaching the wisdom of establishing a “benevolent global hegemony” under American auspices.  When the September 11 attacks shook America, the first thing on these men’s minds was not the loss and suffering of our citizens but the opportunity to wage the war they had long desired.  Ferguson interviews National Intelligence Council Chairman Robert Hutchings, who tells him that, within hours of the disaster, the word went out from Rumsfeld’s office: Find a connection to Iraq.

The film revisits key moments following our invasion of Iraq.  As we watch Baghdad fall, the camera cuts to Rumsfeld giving his “henny-penny” press briefing.  “I picked up a newspaper today and I couldn’t believe it,” he says archly with one of those knowing executive smiles.  “I read eight headlines that talked about chaos, violence, unrest.  And it just was Henny Penny—‘The sky is falling.’  I’ve never seen anything like it!  And here is a country that’s being liberated.”  Sickening, isn’t it?

The camera follows Iraqi looters in March 2003 carrying off whatever wasn’t nailed down.  Rumsfeld appears again, commenting blithely on the rampage: “Stuff happens.”  Then, Ferguson cuts to his interview with Col. Paul Hughes, director of the Strategic Policy Office in the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.  Hughes comments dryly on the stuff that happened.  At one point, he witnessed men pull up with a crane and carry off the dismantled parts of a power plant.  So it’s not surprising that, to this day, electric power is critically scarce.

Hughes goes on to comment on the inexperience of the men running things from Washington, D.C.  Few had military experience; none spoke Arabic.  Yet they insisted they knew better than the generals and Arabists.  When Paul Bremer was sent to Iraq to replace Gen. Jay Garner as head of the reconstruction effort, Hughes was appalled by his deBa’athification policy.  Bremer dismissed Hussein’s entire bureaucracy overnight.  Hughes points out that most of these people didn’t pose a threat; they only supported Hussein to hold their jobs.  Throwing them out contributed to the chaos that has since engulfed the country.  Bremer’s decision to disband the army was even worse.  Instantly, more than a half-million men were unemployed, most of them armed, all of them trained in the use of lethal force.  Hughes tells of several Iraqi generals offering their troops to help American forces quell the insurgency.  Bremer rejected these offers.  Where do you think these Iraqis went? Hughes asks rhetorically.  Some of them undoubtedly visited the unguarded ammunition dumps and helped themselves.  This is why the insurgency has been able to escalate so rapidly and murderously.  Only a man blinded by his own arrogance could have acted as stupidly as Bremer.

Almost as an afterthought, Ferguson’s narrator, Campbell Scott, mentions that, at the time of the filming, there had been over 3,000 American soldiers killed, 20,000 more maimed, and perhaps as many as 600,000 Iraqis slain.  Then the film’s last words are left to Seth Moulton, leader of the Second Platoon of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, Fourth Marines.  Looking at Ferguson’s camera, he asks, “Is this the best America can do?”

We are left to infer the answer.  Yes, this is the best we can do if we accept as our president a know-nothing rich kid controlled by oil-mad Machiavellians and neoconservative ideologues.

As everyone knows or should know, the Bush administration is bent on spreading war throughout the Middle East.  If they have their way, Iran will be next, then Syria.  These gentlemen think force will convert Islamic societies into modern secular states amenable to Western ways, especially in the commercial sphere.  Once those retrograde sheiks wise up to the opportunities offered them through the auspices of Coca-Cola, high-definition TV, and The Gap, they will be eager to drop their silly Islamic faith and play ball with Israel and the United States.  They’ll clamor for democracy and consumer goods, and everyone will live happily ever after under the joint reign of Jerusalem and Washington.

I hope PBS or one of the cable channels picks up Ferguson’s film and plays it repeatedly over the coming months.  If enough people see it, perhaps its title will happily be proved wrong, and we will withdraw from this lost cause.  It could also prevent the strike on Iran that Bush and Cheney so clearly want to initiate before they leave office.

Has anyone ever read a Robert Ludlum novel?  Cover to cover?  Or even cover to, say, page 50?  I found it impossible to get past page 20 of the two novels I’ve sampled from the countless titles spewed from the Ludlum factory.  (Before his death in 2001, Ludlum had reached that enviable apex of American literary endeavor, elevated from an author to a brand.  Like his fellow best-sellers—Joseph Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark, Tom Clancy—he had been accorded the enormous benefit of having others write his works for him.)

I mention my ignorance of the Jason Bourne novels by way of full disclosure.  I have no idea whether the films based on them follow Ludlum’s literary specifications.  And, frankly, I don’t care.  Fare this unreadable doesn’t deserve loyal adaptation.

Mr. Bourne is the perfect undercover operative.  The CIA has stripped him of his memory, leaving him without a past and nearly without a thought.  He’s a brutal, reflexive assassination machine.

The first film in the series, The Bourne Identity, was refreshingly spare, without James Bond gadgetry other than the homemade devices Bourne made on the run.  It also helped that Matt Damon played the title character by freezing his all-American face into the dazed expression of a college freshman stepping onto his school’s quad on the first day of classes.  Damon seems to have been born to do tabula rasa.  The plot concerned a CIA handler attempting to have Bourne eliminated for conduct unbecomingly conscience-stricken.  He had failed to murder when ordered to.  From this moment, the film is a nearly nonstop 90-minute chase across Europe in which Bourne gets to display his superhuman resourcefulness, outwitting and out-pummeling his pursuers.  Not a bad evening’s entertainment, considering you could always admire the scenic locales when the fisticuffs began to pall.

Unfortunately, the second and third installments do not offer such pleasant travelogue relief.  Paul Greengrass took over the directorial duties in Bourne 2 and seems to have mistaken his assignment.  Perhaps he thought he was doing kitchen detail.  He chops both films finely, gathers the bits, and tosses them into a blender.  Greengrass used some of this chop-chop, blend-blend style in his very effective United 93, but, in his Bourne episodes, he leaves the setting on FRAPPÉ.  The results are vertiginously hectic and glutinously smeared.  Watching The Bourne Ultimatum (3), I couldn’t tell where I was most of the time, not that it much mattered.  Another CIA boss is out to kill Bourne, of course; this time, it’s David Strathairn, looking dyspeptically annoyed at Bourne’s ability to climb elevator shafts into his impenetrable office and fly cars off the Westside Highway to escape an army of lesser operatives.  Finally, Albert Finney shows up playing a sort of grinning Minotaur lurking in the center of the agency’s Manhattan labyrinth.  In a rumbling voice, this monster reveals to Bourne what the agency did to him.  Passing strange, since Bourne had already figured this out in the first film.

In an attempt to be au courant, Greengrass has supplied the film with some crass contemporary references.  He includes smudged flashbacks to episodes of Bourne undergoing water-boarding and other Abu Ghraib tortures.  (I didn’t know water-boarding produces amnesia.  Perhaps it’s a variant of brainwashing.)  I’m surprised that a director who, in his earlier work, clearly takes terrorism seriously would put such images to use in a frivolous piece of escapism.  And that he would cash in on Hollywood’s favorite all-purpose bogeyman.  Haven’t we had quite enough of the paranoid, out-of-control CIA?  After all, we now have George Tenet’s dispiriting revelations to read.

I thought The Simpsons Movie would offer some comic relief, and it did—in a mild sort of way.  Here is America’s favorite dysfunctional family in their full glory, negotiating toxic pollution, governmental quarantine, and Homer’s bottomless stupidity.  One of the highlights is Bart’s nude skateboard ride through Springfield, the Midwest’s Everytown.  This daylight escapade provides an essay on cinema’s resources for shocking us by not showing us what we’re looking for—an essay, I should add, that hilariously subverts its thesis in its closing paragraph.  (If you have any interest in the film, you would prefer to see this for yourself.)

There is one thing about The Simpsons that troubles me.  The writers, James Brooks and Matt Groening, lifted their lead character’s name, Homer Simpson, from Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust.  West’s Homer Simpson, however, is not a beer-swilling dimwit but a nearly catatonic bookkeeper who suffers from a pathological inability to assert himself.  The weird joke of West’s brilliant novel resides in having Homer come to California, expecting to find the excitement he had watched on movie screens all of his dim life and then, once in seamy Los Angeles, not knowing how to satisfy his desires.  By contrast, The Simpsons’ Homer never leaves a desire unexpressed.  If he’s feeling it, he’s doing it.  Is this merely ironic, or are we to infer that, after 50 years, popular culture has wised up the Homer Simpsons of the world?  Instead of feeling repressed, they are now heedlessly grabbing pleasure wherever they can.  It is an interesting conceit but, perhaps, one meant only for the series’ smart-aleck creators.  There is little indication that they expect what they perceived to be their marginally literate audience to make the connection to West’s work.  Perhaps this is why I often find the series a little off-putting.  Like all other smart alecks, its creators can seem insufferably parochial.  It would appear that, for them, America’s only intelligent life forms inhabit either Los Angeles or New York City.  All others, especially Midwesterners, exist as do specimens in a zoo.  They have but one purpose: to amuse the big-city cognoscenti.  Time to open the cages for a real laugh.