Television Review

Five-year retrospective puts Iraq in perspective

4 1/2-hour 'Bush's War' is an achievement in fact-gathering, editing

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / March 24, 2008

"Frontline," more than any other American television documentary unit, bet early and long that the Iraq war would define the presidency of George W. Bush.

Its coverage of the buildup to the war and events on the ground has been massive, routinely excellent, repetitive, and at times excessive. Some of it came at the expense of worthy domestic coverage. During the 2004 presidential campaign, for example, "Frontline" gave us multiple programs on Iraq but only one measly look at the two candidates, a month before the November vote.

Yet on the fifth anniversary of the start of the war, "Frontline" 's bet looks awfully good. Tonight and tomorrow night, it airs Mike Kirk's superb "Bush's War," which will surely be the definitive televised piece on Iraq. If you're only going to watch one program about Iraq, to traffic in cliche, this is it.

Kirk, who produced, wrote, and directed this leviathan effort, along with the likes of ace correspondent Martin Smith, has been a bulldog on "Frontline" 's Iraq and Afghanistan coverage from the start. Here, he has woven pieces from more than 40 programs "Frontline" has done on the war on terrorism, along with some new reporting, into an extraordinarily rich and informed narrative.

The result tracks like a novel. While we all know what has happened over there, this show ripples with tension and suspense. "Bush's War" is far greater than the sum of its parts, and it is told in clear, linear fashion accessible to viewers. The case to watch it all again for the first time is overwhelming.

So kudos to Kirk and also Steve Audette, who edited this monster, because editing is the vehicle that propels this show to success.

What strikes you immediately about "Bush's War" is its pacing. It's crisp and fast, and there's little fat in its 4 1/2 hours. It had to be nimble to avoid being smothered under the mountain of available material. We move briskly from interviews to war footage, from one camp within the Bush administration to another in the brutal intramural battle for policy supremacy.

Kirk has also amassed on air the most authoritative group on the war and its buildup imaginable: top Bush administration officials, top military brass and intelligence officials, diplomats, and heavyweight journalists. Together, they invest the show with informed atmospherics and insider accounts of who did what to whom when.

We grasp as never before the chaos and depth of the bloodletting within the Bush administration. We appreciate more than ever just how badly then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice were rolled by the neo-cons, led by Vice President Dick Cheney and then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who had become a formidable inside team over 30 years in D.C.

We also watch the Cheney-Rumsfeld juggernaut humiliate the CIA and its director, George Tenet, who resigned after trading his integrity for Oval Office access. We are stunned once more at the utter lack of planning for the rebuilding of Iraq after the hot war ended. At the announcement of Paul Bremer, Bush envoy to oversee the country's reconstruction, to collapse the Iraqi army without first informing Washington.

Old names and terms resurface: yellow cake, extraordinary rendition, Mission Accomplished, Mahdi army, Fallujah, Valerie Plame, surge. "Is this all we've got?" from Bush. "Slam dunk" from Tenet. "Freedom is messy" from Rumsfeld. "The last throes of the insurgency" from Cheney.

We see once again the reptilian Ahmed Chalabi and the fake WMD info he fed Cheney et al., who wrapped intelligence around policy with disastrous results. Chalabi resembled nothing so much as a Russian spy dispensing disinformation during the Cold War. And who can forget those ghastly, grainy cellphone photos of Saddam's execution by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's henchmen?

At the end of "Bush's War," you will know once and for all how this war was created, by whom, when and what went wrong, how, by whom and when. It's all here.

Sam Allis can be reached at

Bush's War

On: WGBH, Channel 2

Time: Tonight and tomorrow, 9-11:30 p.m. and 9-11 p.m.

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