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."
What appalls Ferguson and makes his movie white-collar harrowing is Bush's almost-exclusive focus on former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Vice President Dick Cheney, as well as their willingness to "penalize" people who spoke up against them. The result, says the former executive, was a disastrous corporate culture.
After Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki contradicted Rumsfeld's troop estimates before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Rumsfeld ridiculed and sacked him. Ferguson is still amazed that "the president does nothing, has no reaction, no involvement.
"If the chief of staff of the Army, who had much more experience than the secretary of Defense, says something like that, I hope I would listen," he says. "When this kind of thing comes down from the people at the top, it's devastating."
As Ferguson began digging, he found "a strikingly large number of people who had tried to do good things but had met brick walls, or brick ceilings."
A cinematic quest
The impetus to do the film came from a dinner with George Packer, a longtime poker pal and The New Yorker's man in Iraq. It was mid-2004; Packer had just come back from a trip to Iraq and conjured a vision of catastrophe.
"Things were not OK, were very, very different than they were being portrayed ... much more complicated and now getting a lot worse," Ferguson recalls. "What he was telling me was coming not from ideology or from preconceived ideas, but from what he had seen."
Ferguson had dreamed of making films but had only loved them from afar. His sense that Iraq was an urgent and compelling subject, and his trusted friend's insistence that the real story wasn't getting told, ignited a cinematic quest.
He immediately began reading up and interviewing sources ranging from journalists to think tank fellows to a deputy secretary of state. He journeyed to Iraq with a security detail that cost him $6,000 a day.
And he elicited extraordinary testimony from lesser-known figures, such as Col. Paul Hughes, who comes off as an American hero of the old stripe -- a cross between Jimmy Stewart and a young Buddy Ebsen. He was ready to deliver 137,000 names of Iraqi soldiers able to serve the coalition before L. Paul Bremer dissolved the Iraqi army.
But Gibney found it difficult to see how Hughes and other characters fit into the pattern that Ferguson was drawing of wisdom denied. Gibney wanted the director to establish stronger personalities on film. Ferguson confesses, "I feared that if I started going too far toward personality and drama and emotion, I would sacrifice veracity and maybe credibility in the policy world. It was a difficult balance."
But Ferguson has crack film instincts, too: He uses split-screen to convey the impact of Iraqi carnage and to abet his drive for complexity. Intelligence of every kind becomes exciting.
"I made this film precisely because it was an Iraq film that hadn't been made," says Ferguson. "If there were another movie that laid out the mistakes, I wouldn't have made this one."
Gibney says that would have been a loss. "There are many things that make up an 'authored' piece, a film that has a voice, like a real piece of writing," he says. "Because of who he is, no one could have made this movie except Charles."