A quick primer on Robert Greenwald: He's the guy who went from filmmaker (with credits widely ranging from the disco musical fantasy "Xanadu" to the Abbie Hoffman biopic "Steal This Movie") to full-on hyphenate filmmaker-activist, spending the past few years quickly churning out hard-hitting left-wing documentaries with long-winded titles like "Uncovered: The War on Iraq," "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism," and "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price." (He's also produced a handful of other similarly themed efforts.)
Although sharply researched, his fast production turnaround time leaves his documentaries looking a little cheap and underdeveloped; Greenwald's intent is to get his message out to the people as soon as possible, and by any means necessary, which means direct-to-video with a push from direct internet sales and share-the-film campaigns. He's often fighting deadlines, wanting his films released before elections or other important dates (and also to keep his arguments topical and fresh).
The upside to all of this is that he is a filmmaker concerned with public service instead of financial gain, and his free-wheeling spirit reflects this philosophy. The downside? Greenwald is in too much a hurry to let his projects grow as films - rather than focus on making a well-crafted movie, the intent is to get as much information out there as quickly as possible. As a result, his films, while informative, often lack the narrative strength to work as solid cinema (the on-the-cheap graphics and production values don't help, either), and the messages don't get as solidified as they would have if Greenwald would polish up the editing for (at the very least) a few extra months.
Greenwald's latest is "Iraq For Sale: The War Profiteers," and although this, too, was churned out with Roger Corman-esque speed, it actually shows an improvement in terms of filmmaking and political argument-making. Perhaps this is because Greenwald and his team at Brave New Films (the production house behind all his projects) have by now established a rhythm all their own, working as a solid unit, streamlining the production schedule so things don't come off as rushed as they actually are. (To give you a clue as to the turnaround time, events shown in the film run up to August 2006, a mere month-and-change before the DVD release date.)
The target here is the privatization of war and the unsettling troubles that follow. If you can look past the dopey visual aids (Greenwald sure loves a meaningless bar graph to reiterate just how much cash these defense contractors are pulling in), you'll discover that "Iraq For Sale" is meticulously researched. All the facts and figures are here: how much each company is making, how much they're charging taxpayers, how much they're overcharging the government. (45 bucks for a six-pack of Coke?!) We get in depth interviews with the people who were there, working for companies like Halliburton, Blackwater, and CACI as well as soldiers whose very jobs were actually handed over to civilians in a move of unmeasurable stupidity. Long gone are the days of KP for a grunt; he's now put on watch duty while a contractor fixes lunch - or, more precisely, while KBR limits the time food is available in order to cut costs and maximize profits, never mind that a shortened mess schedule means a crowded chow line means a more tempting target for a bomb-wielding insurgent. Of course, to imply that such companies care more about the bottom line than for the lives of people is to get to the very heart of the issue.
The film follows a variety of paths: how the contractor companies ignore dangers to its lower employees, with many unnecessary deaths following; how contractor involvement in interrogation led to unaccountable horrors like those at Abu Ghraib; how companies are bilking taxpayers for billions, while the government looks the other way; how Halliburton (yup, they save the biggest and baddest for last) wins repeated no-bid contracts from the Bush administration despite a parade of legal and financial problems that would have kicked a lesser company to the curb years ago. (Hmm, I wonder if anybody at Halliburton knows anybody at the White House…)
Like Michael Moore's films, "Iraq For Sale" is a bit sloppy and all over the map, easily distracted by side stories and off-shoot rants. Unlike Moore's films, there's not enough charm or humor to make up for this flaw. "Iraq For Sale," like Greenwald's previous efforts, is serious and seriously pissed, which is both a drawback (it's more like listening to a rant than settling in for some intricately mapped-out whistle blowing) and an advantage (the anger lends the film some much needed energy, driving us from point to point, interview to interview with some heavy venom). This latest film is sleeker and more put-together than its predecessors, but it's still pretty rough around the edges.
Still, you can't blame Greenwald for getting so worked up, and he's to be commended for doing something few political/editorial documentaries do: he ends his movie with an invite to action, asking viewers to visit the film's website, organize a screening, and just plain do something. Brave New Films, it turns out, is a one-stop shop for activist rage.
Despite this activist stance, "Iraq For Sale" is surprisingly not a lefty movie; the filmmaker is careful to include the voices of the right, or, at least, the voices of the right who are willing to sit down with this liberal and talk about how no-bid contracts that rake up billions in unnecessary spending is far from the conservative agenda. For once, Greenwald is careful to leave the red-blue divide out of the equation, presenting the dilemma here as a national one.
The DVD cover lists the film as having a 90 minute run time. This is incorrect; the film only lasts 75 minutes.
It's a cheap production that looks as much, although the digital video transfers just fine onto disc. For what it is, it's passable. The film is presented in a flat letterbox (non-anamorphic) format delivering a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, except for the closing credits, which come in 1.33:1 full screen - reminding us that the whole thing was always intended for TV screens.
We're given a 5.1 surround soundtrack, although there's no use for it; all of the noticeable action takes place up front. A decent 2.0 Spanish dub is also included, as are optional Spanish subtitles.
A very chatty Greenwald fills up a commentary track with plenty of behind-the-scenes dirt, cluing us in on just how you put together a complete film in only a few months.
The DVD case tells us that the 22-minute "highlight version" of the film is "perfect for organizing," which I translate as "it's something to show people who can't sit still for 75 minutes." It's an alternate, Cliffs Notes-ish cut of the film that might make good for group meetings but is a bit useless for the guy just watching it to watch it.
"Important Votes" is a half-hour collection of speeches from the floors of the House and Senate, where amendments introduced in an effort to curb contractor malfeasance were introduced - and voted down. Good stuff for the C-SPAN crowd.
"The Invisible Workforce" feels like an extended outtake, a five-minute segment on Indian and Pakistani employees hired by subcontractors for duties like dishwashing. Interesting stuff, it's easy to see why this never made it into the movie itself, as it doesn't quite fit with the rest of the story.
A short (four-minute) making-of turns the camera on at Brave New Films, with typical results. More interesting is the (also four-minute) piece on the company's "Open Door Training Program," which invites new filmmakers and recent graduates to work an internship at Brave New Films. (It's a bit of a shiny happy promotional piece, but it's still kinda neat.)
Finally, the "Iraq For Sale" trailer and trailers for other Brave New Films releases are included.
As a film, it has its share of problems, but as rabble rousing, it's a first rate rallying cry. Recommended to viewers from all points on the political spectrum.