Sunday, February 17, 2008

Missions Impossible

Extravagantly praised for not being a Michael Moore movie, No End in Sight, Charles Ferguson's Oscar-nominated documentary about the botching of the Iraq War, is disingenuous in more subtle ways. Not that I disagree with the basic premise: WMD evidence was fudged; the inner circle of power, namely Rumsfeld and Bremer, made dubious decisions for the occupation (allowing the looting, banning the Ba'athists, dissolving the Iraqi military) with catastrophic consequences; people who knew what they were doing and could have made a difference were marginalized or ignored and all wrote books to prove it. Ferguson, in his first film, does a decent job with the bullet points, at capturing sobering images of the chaos on the ground and conducting candid interviews with now-disillusioned pro-interventionists. (Though I'm unclear exactly why New Yorker writer George Packer is being questioned on a stairwell -- was an underground parking garage unavailable?) What's missing is the larger why: the social context for the lack of troops, the fears following 9/11, the deep religious and cultural complexities of the Iraqi people, who are once again given short shrift in a tragic story that is every bit as much their own.

Still, perhaps one should be grateful that they are depicted at all. In The Kingdom, Peter Berg's Dirty Dozen/Black Rain mash-up about a team of p.o.'d American federal agents who barge their way into Saudi Arabia to investigate a terrorist bombing and rough up a Hezbollah neighborhood real good, the Arab inhabitants are window dressing at best, or obstacles in the way of our heroes' bullets hitting the appropriate targets -- not that they ever miss. (Who needs a few more hundred thousand troops, The Kingdom suggests, when four can do the job?) The investigation is uninvolving, the performances (by ordinarily compelling actors like Jamie Foxx and Chris Cooper) dull, the employment in the final act of a Daniel Pearl-type subplot featuring Jason Bateman's character reprehensible to the extreme. A good movie could be made of this scenario, but dipshit director Berg isn't up to it. On the DVD commentary, he glosses over the couldn't-be-timelier subject matter, opting instead to brag about how he was the first guest-star on Alias to kiss Jennifer Garner. Way to focus, Pete.

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