"Uncovered: The War on Iraq" starts in an unusually calm and measured way for a documentary critical of that particular military adventure. All antiwar docs, it turns out, are not cut from the same cloth.
Instead of stentorian rhetoric, this Robert Greenwald-directed film begins quietly, with a group of experts matter-of-factly identifying themselves and stating their bona fides.
Here's someone with 28 years of experience in the Central Intelligence Agency, someone else with 35, yet a third who was awarded the agency's Career Intelligence Medal. Here's a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, a retired lieutenant colonel, a whole platoon of people who take pride in the decades spent "serving my country."
Just as all supporters of the war in Iraq are not fire-breathing Vulcans from inside the Beltway, so all opponents are not hotheaded radicals from outside the establishment.
With the exception of a brief clip from the Washington editor of the Nation, the voices in "Uncovered" are not ideologues but rather classic bureaucrats, the people who usually toil in obscurity and rarely if ever make the evening news.
Which makes the level of opposition among these people to the war in Iraq especially impressive even though it's delivered in calm, measured tones.
The speakers are united in their horror of a process that they feel sent the U.S. into battle on the basis of rationalizations and justifications rather than the facts and realities they spent their careers trying to establish.
Because of his belief that "we all have short emotional memories," Greenwald takes pains to remind us of the atmosphere in this country before the invasion of Iraq. Over and over, we see key administration figures repeating the mantras of "weapons of mass destruction" and "death on a massive scale." We hear about "biological or chemical attacks in as little as 45 minutes" and are chastised like children for our desire for proof with an apocalyptic "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."
Then the experts take over, and President Bush's prewar State of the Union address and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's speech to the U.N. are both meticulously taken apart, claim by unsubstantiated claim. "It was a masterful performance," says former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, "but none of it was true."
What was done for weapons of mass destruction was also done, the film tells us, for the supposed link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. We're told that the reality is that Osama bin Laden "had total contempt" for Hussein and that, moreover, dictators classically do not give up control of weapons to others. "Saddam was a sociopath and a psychopath," one ex-analyst says, "but he wasn't irrational."
Former CIA employees were especially horrified at how things went down because of their feeling that the intelligence community was leaned on to support administration positions, that reports were subject to "data mining," the process of combing old information for new opinions.
As one veteran explains, the CIA's headquarters are out in Langley, Va., instead of Washington, D.C., specifically to prevent that sort of compromising pressure.
Like the war in Iraq, "Uncovered" has a noteworthy history. A considerably shorter, 57-minute version was released exclusively on DVD in December 2003, one of the first films to take advantage of an alternate, home-based distribution system created by MoveOn.org and the Center for American Progress.
The current version is 83 minutes long, and the most interesting of the new material is an extended interview with David Kay, the man the administration put in charge of finding those weapons of mass destruction -- and who now says, without the usual qualifications, "We were all wrong. That is most disturbing."
Although "Uncovered" is adamant in its opposition to the war, perhaps the most significant, most upsetting point it makes is distinctly nonpolitical.
Even if you grant the administration the best of motives and the purest of hearts, the ease with which its members were able to persuade the American public to go to war on the basis of something that has been proved to be untrue does not lighten the heart about the prospects for an informed democracy in this mass-media age.
Yet there are hopeful notes here. If you are looking for examples for America's finest hour, it's not our rush to start an optional war but rather that an anti-administration film like this can still be made and still be seen.
It's the kind of thing we take for granted but shouldn't. Other things we take for granted have been disappearing at a surprisingly rapid rate these days.
'Uncovered:The War on Iraq'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: adult subject matter
A Moveon.Org and the Center for American Progress presentation in association with Artists United, released by Cinema Libre Distribution. Director Robert Greenwald. Producer Robert Greenwald. Editors Chris Gordan, Kimberly Ray, Deborah Zeitman. Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes. In limited release.