Local news programs have known this secret for a long time: There’s nothing like on-the-scene reporting. We can listen to a weatherman speculate, and we can watch as he points to a digital map. But if you’ve got a reporter out there clinging to an umbrella as the storm hits… that’s persuasive coverage!

In the documentary No End in Sight, you’ll see a lot of familiar sights, and listen again to excerpts from recently televised speeches. These are the ways in which we have learned about what has been happening during the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

And then you’ll see those sights placed in their proper context. And you’ll hear those speeches revealed as nonsense.

Filmmaker Charles Ferguson runs us through a collection of public statements delivered by President George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld that informed the American public about the U.S. occupation of Iraq since the 2003 invasion. At the same time, he looks into the content of reports sent home from the front lines during the struggle to secure Baghdad.

The contrast between those field reports and the White House messages to the American public is alarming. Ferguson explores the question of how such troubling news, such anxious appeals for resources and assistance, were transformed into public declarations of confidence and progress.

It might be tempting to brush aside No End in Sight as political propaganda. But Ferguson consults not the administration’s notorious political opponents, but the very experts that the U.S. government selected and sent into the Baghdad fray to establish order and democracy: Army major general Paul Eaton; Marine Corps lieutenant Seth Moulton; the accomplished diplomat Barbara Bodine who became the U.S. ambassador “in charge” of Baghdad; and most importantly, retired lieutenant general Jay Garner, head of the Organization of Recovery and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq. Garner gets tears in his eyes as he describes the promising opportunities he was prepared to explore, only to have those opportunities spoiled by incoming orders.

By introducing us to true civil servants who put their lives on the line and brought lifetimes of expertise to bear upon the challenges in Iraq, Ferguson gives us inspiring, hard-working American heroes, even as he horrifies us with the choices that were made to undercut the leadership of those brave souls.

One of the most surprising outcomes of the film is that George W. Bush only makes a few brief appearances. The revelations and testimonies of our front-lines operatives cast the most doubt on the abilities of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and L. Paul Bremer III to lead in a wise and trustworthy fashion. Tellingly, none of them would be interviewed for the film. Only a Defense Department advisor, Walter Slocombe, seems willing to argue with the front-lines ambassadors. But he’s not speaking from the experience of serving there, and he looks like he’s been hit with a bad case of indigestion when the tough questions come his way.

For the view from researchers’ perspectives, Ferguson interviews the authors of several recent books on the subject: Nir Rosen, James Fallows, and George Packer. And for the view from this part of the world, he talks with Richard L. Armitage and Lawrence Wilkerson of the State Department.

But it’s not just a “talking heads” document. Ferguson peppers the film with front-lines footage, conversations with Iraqis (including some that welcomed America at first, but now find themselves in more danger than ever). The most shocking moment of all comes when Ferguson plays us a homemade video shot in the truck of an American private contractor, who is playing an Elvis song while somebody in the truck shoots down Iraqi drivers as if playing a video game. It may remind you of a certain sequence in Apocalypse Now that featured Robert Duvall. But this… this is Apocalypse Yesterday, the one we’d rather not admit we helped bring about.

Thus, No End in Sight is quite different than the other big-screen perspectives on the Iraq conflict that we’ve yet seen. It doesn’t focus on what the soldiers are experiencing, or on any kind of conspiracy theory. It’s not out to tell us that Iraq was a peaceful and wonderful place that the U.S. destroyed, nor does it treat us like heroes. Ferguson sets a standard for great documentarians in that he defines his objective very specifically, and then achieves that objective. If he had tried to venture off on the tangents that get Michael Moore in so much trouble, commenting on a wide variety of controversial subjects, he would have weakened his argument. But this movie focuses like a laser beam on one particular problem — the severe lack of understanding and preparation on the part of the U.S. in launching an occupation of Iraq. He asks, “Were we ready? Did we know what we were doing? Did we know what the consequences were going to be?” And then he asks the best authorities to answer those questions with evidence. And they do.

There are many lessons to be learned from No End in Sight. But if there is one overwhelming take-away, it’s this: The view from the street is very different than the view from the tower. And it’s best not to seek to take action on the street until you have learned what it’s like there, and prepared accordingly.

For a revealing interview with Charles Ferguson, read Andrew O’Heihr’s “Beyond the Multiplex” at Salon.

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