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March 26, 2008


Iraq — And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The Frontline production Bush’s War can’t make up its mind what it is. According to its website, either it is

the definitive documentary analysis of one of the most challenging periods in the nation’s history.

Or it is

the entire narrative [that reveals] in one epic story the scope and detail of how this war began and how it has been fought, both on the ground and deep inside the government.

Either, as Matt Roush says in TV Guide, it is

lucid, engrossing, infuriating.

Or it is a lot of trees obscuring a very big forest.

Frontline has been on the front lines of the war on terror from the beginning, providing more than forty reports that ask the questions and provide the images that Americans need in order to understand what is transpiring. This is an achievement to be proud of.

When the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion loomed, it made good sense for its editorial team to aim high, to pull together the vast material they had accumulated and add more, to create a kind of “film of record.” And they did.

The Frontline website bulges with interviews and analysis and timelines. The entire 41/2 hour program is available for viewing and reviewing. Most of the material in the program itself will be familiar. Its value is not in presenting new information but in pulling together old.

But that’s where the problem sets in.

Bush’s War traces five years of events, beginning with the chaos of 9/11 and ending with the uncertainty of today. (This saga of battles waged behind the scenes in Washington and on the scene in the Middle East ends anticlimactically with the statement, “Soon Bush’s war will be handed to someone new.) It proceeds step by step. Step by step. Step by step. The result is a timeline brought to life by talking heads.

What is missing is an overarching narrative that can make sense of all the material. What is missing is a point of view.

Writing in this month’s Columbia Journalism Review, Michael Massing complains that there is something missing in many of the indie documentaries that are being produced today:

There is no narration or voice-over, no guiding intelligence to help the viewer make sense of the kaleidoscope of images and interviews being presented.

Oddly enough, that’s not the exactly problem in Bush’s War. It does indeed have a narration. In addition to a multitude of other voices — of reporters and eyewitnesses — the firm baritone of producer and reporter Jim Gilmore provides a guide to the events it chronicles. Step by step.

If the intent is to convey the utter chaos that has accompanied every phase of the war, it succeeds. The ultimate impression it creates is one less of evil than of incompetence. And perhaps that impression is accurate.

But if that is the program’s intent, then the title is misleading: the subject becomes not Bush’s war but a war of bumblers, all competing with one another, full of sound and fury. Yet surely we cannot say — and the producers of Frontline would not want to say – that this war signifies nothing.

        — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008