If you’re not familiar with this movie, you can probably guess by the title it’s not exactly a love letter to Halliburton.
“Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers” is the latest film from Robert Greenwald–the man who took on Rupert Murdoch (in “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism”) and more recently Wal-Mart (in “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price”).
It’s perhaps worth noting that the Iraq War has been going on so long now that “Iraq for Sale” is actually Greenwald’s second film on the conflict. His first, “Uncovered: The War on Iraq,” dealt with the Bush administration’s case for war.
“Iraq for Sale,” however, keeps a tight focus on war profiteers, which is undoubtedly its strength. Greenwald relentlessly pursues companies like Halliburton/KBR, Titan, CACI and Blackwater for their, he says, corrupt behavior as government contractors in the current war.
It opens feeling almost like an Errol Morris effort–say, “The Fog of War“–but quickly settles into Greenwald’s more straightforward style: Talk to a bunch of people who are unhappy about something, and illustrate their complaints with grainy footage and helpful graphics.
Greenwald begins with the families of men who worked for Blackwater USA, a security firm with a government contract. Blackwater lost four men in a March 2004 Fallujah debacle that made front-page news after the employees’ mutilated bodies were strung from a bridge.
Greenwald is all over this, first talking to the families, eliciting their pain and opinions, then making a case for how Blackwater shored up support in the U.S. Senate after such negative publicity with aggressive PAC and lobbying efforts.
Greenwald contrasts the ex-military men employed by Blackwater for its operations with normal civilians who headed to Iraq as truck drivers. But even truck drivers don’t return from Iraq, and Greenwald talks to their families, too. He highlights an April 2004 incident in which six truck drivers, employed by Halliburton, were ambushed and killed en route to Baghdad International Airport.
He also examines the role of private contractor CACI in the Abu Ghraib scandal, suggesting that untrained civilian interrogators played a role–and avoided prosecution–in the notorious prison where detainees were abused and tortured. On hand to help tell this story are several former Abu Ghraib prison detainees, military interrogators and even Janis Karpinski, the former brigadier general who was in charge of detention facilities in Iraq when the abuses occurred.
Greenwald’s filmmaking approach doesn’t leave much–OK, anything–to the imagination. But if you’re Greenwald, doing so might be your greatest sin. After all, he ends the 75-minute film with the onscreen title: “You can do something. Take the DVD, organize a screening, share it, and change the world.”
He’s not kidding. “Iraq for Sale” will use the same grassroots distribution system as his earlier films–a system relying on activist communities around the globe. One of Greenwald’s problems, however, is that most of the communities that rally behind the film are already deeply suspicious of these companies and the incestuous nature of top-level government and big business.
The clearest example of that nature is Vice President Dick Cheney, former CEO of Halliburton. Greenwald actually doesn’t spend as much time on that thread as Greenwald’s enemies might think, but he certainly does bring it up. Cheney aside, Halliburton itself stands as one of the film’s primary targets.
Greenwald fingers the contracting giant and its subsidiary KBR for everything from negligence in protecting its employees to wasting resources to overbilling to fostering lavish lifestyles for its management in Kuwait while rank-and-file U.S. soldiers stood in a chow line stretching across the desert.
Greenwald brings in Jim Donahue of Halliburton Watch, who says the company’s stock has quadrupled in value since the war began.
He talks to Ralph Peters, a retired lieutenant colonel, who says: “We were writing contracts with Halliburton and others to do things that Iraqis could’ve done better and far, far cheaper. And by the way, we would have gotten Iraqis off the street and given them jobs.”
Greenwald’s laundry list of abuses and corruption goes on and on. Predictably, no executive from any of the accused companies appears on camera. Greenwald says he asked and they refused. We even see one fleeing the camera and hopping into his SUV to speed away.
With these companies not speaking for themselves in “Iraq for Sale,” it becomes a fun exercise to see what, if anything, they say on their Web sites. Halliburton, for example, has responded with a press release, in which the public relations department characterizes “Iraq for Sale” as a “documentary-style production”–a calculated phrase. CACI has a “Facts About CACI in Iraq” link on its main page that doesn’t address the film in particular but deals with “new inaccuracies” being reported about the company.
(Interestingly, these company sites are pelted with proud announcements about how many tens of millions of dollars the company has been awarded in government contracts.)
But back to “Iraq for Sale.” A common thread seems to be that civilian workers who went over there believed the U.S. government and its private contractors would protect them. Now, the individuals who returned–or the families of ones who didn’t–seem hammered by disillusionment over cut corners, unwise decisions, greed for money.
Greenwald intends these few Americans to represent the rest of us: normal patriots who, exposed to what’s really going on, become outraged. In fact, Greenwald ends the film by emphasizing that the people who have spoken out in the film love their country–for he knows those who criticize usually have their loyalty questioned.
“Iraq for Sale” sent me searching for more information, and it intensified my interest in how the United States is conducting the war–not a bad thing for any citizen of the most influential country on the planet.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: Unrated. Reviewer’s Note: The documentary uses a number of photos from the notorious Abu Graib prison, which show torture tactics and nudity.
Producer-Director: Robert Greenwald
Cast: Katy Helvenston; Hollie Hulett; April and Kim Johnson; Shane Ratliff; Donna, Jozo and Tom Zovko; Bill Peterson; Edward Sanchez; Ben Carter; Janis Karpinski; Geoff Millard.
The movie’s official Web site is here.
Also read our review of Greenwald’s “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price”
Check out the Center for Public Integrity’s research on (and list of) contractors in Iraq.