For 4 1/2 hours, PBS' 'Frontline' examines, explains 'Bush's War'

The Baltimore Sun

Last month, an essay in The New York Times asked the question: Is PBS still necessary?

The newspaper reaped a whirlwind of angry and eloquent responses in the affirmative, but nothing shows the necessity and continuing cultural importance of PBS like the two-part Frontline documentary titled Bush's War that starts tonight.

No one in television has covered the war in Iraq with as much diligence and passion as Frontline in dozens of reports. And that goes back to the time of the run-up to the conflict when The Times was printing stories on its front page about the threat of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

While some of the Times stories that carried the byline of Judith Miller have since been called into question, the work of Frontline stands tall - and Bush's War is at the apex of that effort.

If you watch only one report or read one article in connection with the fifth anniversary of the war, make it this 4 1/2 -hour film. It will make you among the best informed as to how America came to find itself in the conflict and why so many things went so wrong on the ground in Iraq.

Starting with Sept. 11, 2001, and continuing through last year's troop surge, writer and director Michael Kirk crafts a compelling TV narrative that is a triumph of journalism and filmmaking.

The journalism part involves gathering, processing and verifying so much information in one place.

Kirk and reporter-producer Jim Gilmore focus on moments of passage - the reaction within the Bush White House in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, the decision to invade Iraq, and the confusion when it became apparent that America was going to have to occupy the defeated country but had no plan on how to do so.

At every turn, memos from key players are shared with viewers, while participants are interviewed on-camera. And, then, their written and spoken words are cross-checked with other participants and accounts for verification.

Critics from the right have charged Frontline with liberal bias over the years. But while Bush's War feels almost Biblical in its ultimate condemnation of the president, Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld for their execution of the war, the documentary includes officials from all sides of the issue. Such high-level Bush administration players as Richard L. Armitage, a former deputy secretary of state, and L. Paul Bremer III, who served as American administrator in Iraq in the early days of the war, are interviewed extensively.

But so much information would be impossible to process if not for the deft touch of director Kirk, who wraps all the data in a visual tapestry reminiscent of Alan J. Pakula's 1976 feature film All the President's Men. As the narration tells viewers of secret meetings, internecine feuds, backroom deals and political back-stabbing at the highest levels, viewers are carried along on a river of images suggesting a government run behind closed doors - both in Washington and Iraq.

Ultimately, Bush's War might also come to be judged a first-rate work of history. It certainly feels like history with its richly textured and strongly supported narrative of cause and effect helping explain a bewildering rush of events that have left thousands dead.

But it is still too soon to make that call.

For now, just enjoy the documentary. Clear some time tonight and tomorrow to watch Bush's War - and be thankful that there is still a public television system in this country that can produce such stellar work.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad