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Iraq for Sale

August 30, 2010

Iraq for Sale (2006)
Director: Robert Greenwald

Synopsis: Dissection of the de facto privatisation of the Iraq War.

Review: Cinema has seemingly covered the Iraq War from every possible angle. Nick Broomfield’s verité-inflected Battle for Haditha (2007) took us into the maelstrom and confusion of the war’s most controversial incident, Michael Moore used his typical wit and bombast to deconstruct its political folly in Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), and humanist works such as Iraq in Fragments (2006) had the good grace to chart the after-effects of the war on the Iraqi civilian population. It could just be though, that this little gem of a DIY documentary from Robert Greenwald has trumped the lot in crystallising the cancer that lies at the heart of American involvement in Iraq, with a scathing critique of the conflict’s grotesque privatisation.

Greenwald structures his argument superbly, manoeuvring the discourse through three specific personal stories, and utilising those micro-tragedies to reflect out on to the wider scandals of American activity in Iraq. If the slaughter of Blackwater employees in Fallujah and the non-accountability of private firm CACI in the Abu Ghraib tortures was not sickening enough, Greenwald’s third strand concerning the slaying of an innocent Halliburton truck driver is the gut-wrenching apex to his polemic. The slain man’s family document how he had gone to Iraq not with some ill-conceived notion of military glory, or for fiscal greed, but with a genuine missive to contribute to the regeneration of Iraq and to give his family a reason to feel proud of him. That Halliburton wilfully let him drive his truck in a weakly-guarded convoy on Good Friday (a day when all intelligence had indicated that insurgents would hit US interests hard), just makes the sense of injustice sear off the screen.

Greenwald deserves credit not simply for his film’s grandiloquence, but also for its impeccable technique, particularly on such a micro budget. He avoids the pitfall of too much exposition with ‘talking heads’ and varies his rhetorical artillery with voiceover, archive footage, and some ingenious diagrams that represent the internecine links between the private companies winning all the contracts in Iraq and the Bush administration (Dick Cheney is a former CEO of Halliburton).

Most importantly, the tone of Greenwald’s polemic is pitch-perfect. With all the incendiary evidence implicating the immorality of US private company involvement in Iraq, the tendency could have been to fashion an angry one-dimensional diatribe. Greenwald acknowledges this temptation with brilliant irony in his end-credits when the mysterious lack of any corporate presence in the film is marked by scenes of Greenwald and his producers being fobbed off over the phone whenever he tries to initiate dialogue with them.

Greenwald’s film is also marked by an impressive measure and grace, with the bereaved families communicating an admirable eloquence to go with the undoubted poignancy of their losses. In that respect, it mirrors Spike Lee’s epic documentary When the Levees Broke (2006) about that other great American tragedy of this decade – Hurricane Katrina. Aside from Lee’s exhaustive analysis of the event, the most compelling constituent of his film was the depiction of the inherent civic decency people showed in the face of such extraordinarily trying circumstances, and this is Greenwald’s prime achievement too. Iraq for Sale may have exposed a country that has completely let its citizens down, but hope is offered that a wiser, more humanitarian ethos might have finally seeped into the American consciousness. (November 2009)

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