A little advice for the Bush administration: Don't lie to us. That's the one thing, guaranteed, that will bite you in your golf-pants– and Sansabelt-clad behinds. The American public really hates a prevaricator. While we know that thing about George Washington and the cherry tree isn't strictly true, that's a lie about lying that we like, a little piece of apocryphal mythology that, you know, holds up the illusion of a transparent and inclusive democracy.
That's a pleasant lie. This other thing that you've cooked up, though, this messy bird's nest you've woven to justify the war on Iraq -- some nice pieces of tinfoil from Ahmad Chalabi, maybe some baby powder for Colin Powell's presentation to the United Nations, some yellowcake crumbs, scraps from the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center, a big old tuft from Osama bin Laden's beard to line the whole thing -- well, that's just shameless.
Robert Greenwald's latest documentary, Uncovered: The War on Iraq, takes on the administration's pop-eyed rhetoric, intelligence-data manipulation, and low-blow tactics against dissenters. Made in collaboration with MoveOn.org and the Center for American Progress, Uncovered is a blistering prosecutorial brief against the Bush administration's case for war in Iraq, though a deeply noncinematic documentary. Talking heads flap away well over an acceptable words-per-minute speed limit, dizzying montages of administration officials flash by, and viewers will wish for a rewind button and a little white space amid the thicket of words. Were it not for the reliable elegance of a chronological structure to carry us through, Uncovered would be an insurmountable slog.
But as a rebuttal to the administration's version of history, the film is devastating. As he's proven in Outfoxed, his takedown of the right-wing, “fair and balanced” FOX News Channel, Greenwald is fascinated by the rhetorical battle being fought in U.S. politics, this war of words that shapes our understanding of the uncertain past, shifting present, and wildly contested future. Greenwald sharply delineates his adversaries; his array of experts include diplomatic, intelligence, and security personnel with staggering amounts of experience, going up against the administration and portrayed in collages of sound clips. You could argue that Greenwald stacks the deck by not allowing the administration to speak live as well. But you could also argue that the administration has done such a devastating job of co-opting the mainstream media, threatening and discrediting government opponents, and bamboozling us with its alarmist rhetoric that it's hogged more than its fair share of the spotlight.
Greenwald starts with the march-to-Baghdad talk that began on September 12, 2001, and continues on through the allegations of yellowcake sales, the reliance on unreliable informants, the snookering of the media, and the Valerie Plame leak. Again and again he cuts between his dissenting experts and the Bush administration, showing Donald Rumsfeld doing a bit of rhetorical soft-shoe around an unpleasant question, Condoleezza Rice mouthing such nicely turned phrases as, “We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” and, “Saddam [Hussein] cavorts with terrorists.”
(My mind wandered briefly to the idea of Hussein prancing and capering and playing patty-cake with bin Laden.)
In contrast, Greenwald's experts -- from the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Chas Freeman, to the man who conducted the fruitless CIA search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, David Kay -- offer scathingly well-reasoned and angry responses to administration claims. Backed up with exhaustive data and field experience, the words have the ring of testimony, which, in effect they are in Greenwald's mock trial of a movie. There were no weapons of mass destruction, the experts tell us; we looked everywhere, the informants lied to us, intelligence data was cherry-picked to fit a foregone conclusion.
Greenwald goes one step further and explores this dissonance between reality and rhetoric within the neoconservative movement that did so much to push us into Iraq. His experts argue that these civilians -- Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle, among others -- were frighteningly out of touch with the interests of the natives of other countries, were burdened by a preening arrogance fed by Cold War fantasies, and had an inability to plan for an outcome that was less than ideal. Afflicted with what Slate's Jacob Weisberg has termed a Trotskyian obsession with top-down revolution and Hegelian models of history, the neocons urged the administration to go to war and then fiddled as Baghdad burned.
For all its filmic fumblings, Uncovered's unrelenting accretion of fact and testimony gives it an unexpected power. While Michael Moore might have made a more entertaining and watchable piece of propaganda in Fahrenheit 9/11, he drew on some lazy reasoning, ladled on a soupçon of insinuation, yanked the heartstrings like Quasimodo rode those church-bell ropes. Greenwald, in contrast, doesn't need offensive caricatures of our coalition-of-the-willing partners or any ice-cream-truck gimmicks. He goes for our heads, building an argument that has the power, eventually, of a punch in the gut. And when he cuts to images of Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers suffering, he doesn't compromise their dignity or use them as mere rhetorical devices. It's a devastating cause and effect, he says: We got into this war on a trumped-up argument, and here are the costs of the deception.
Greenwald almost made me forget my fondness for less lopsided or partisan documentaries. The omission of the administration's live point of view still wore on me, but by the end of the film, I was swayed by the words of CIA analyst Ray McGovern, who tells Greenwald, “When the emperor has no clothes, you have to have the presence of mind and the courage to stand up and say, ‘The emperor has no clothes.'”
When the emperor has been fabricating tales of his glorious wardrobe for so long, when he has been silencing dissenters, when he wants us to believe in and continue the perpetration of his fictions, what makes us think that he might have a change of heart -- and tell the truth if we ask him for it?
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.