IN A SHIFTING SANDBOX
My name appears on a cast list beside that of Tariq Aziz—the eight of clubs in the deck of playing cards that U.S. and coalition troops carried to identify the most-wanted senior Iraqi outlaws during the 2003 invasion—in a 2002 movie review in The New York Times. The review is not positive.
In the fall of 2000—one year before the world was changed forever by constant reminders that the world had changed forever—I co-wrote a feature-length documentary on a COMPLICATED and IMPORTANT SUBJECT with a CONTROVERSIAL INTERNATIONAL FIGURE. A child of 30 with extensive work experience in sketch comedy and Microsoft PowerPoint is asked to do this only so often, so I took the assignment without much pause, or (if we’re being honest about it) much choice.
I had recently become a partner in a gigantic web-entertainment startup (actually, it was a makeover of a time-honored webzine, but it was being handled like a startup—which is to say that the ridiculous six-figure salaries that I and a bunch of my college friends were earning to spin Internet gold were the subject of press releases from one end of publicists’ fax machine platens to the other). A disgusting amount of money was being spent to renovate office space (unappealingly), purchase studio and edit equipment (unheedingly of expense or technological shelf-life), and retain “talent.” (…here I have no snarky parenthetical; I believed, and still believe, that my friends and I had talent. Fortunately for us, proving or even describing what the talent was wasn’t a precondition at contract-signing.) Being otherwise pretty honest youngsters, we felt obliged to bring in work (or, at least, not to turn our noses up at it), so when the beat-up office phones rang—and on the line that wasn’t typically used by wives or girlfriends—we more or less had to pick up.
I have a better idea of how the Hubble Space Telescope works than of how Scott Ritter—a former U.S. Marine and international weapons expert who’d publicly resigned his post as Chief U.N. Weapons Inspector in Iraq amid allegations of intrigue—got our new office phone number. We weren’t in the phone book (which would still have been the preferred way of finding a production company to finish one’s unfinished documentary on a COMPLICATED and IMPORTANT SUBJECT). What I do recall is reading this strange caller’s incendiary first-hand account of the collapse of the international Iraqi disarmament effort a few days later while floating around in my sister-in-law’s pool—sunburning a non-fiction paperback-shaped silhouette into my torso in a frantic attempt to bone up for our initial lunch meeting. (I guess at that time my fear of skin cancer hadn’t yet swapped rankings with my terror of lunch meetings.)
Ritter was a nice guy, though not above using his towering 6-foot-four-inch frame to intimidate a table-mate. In fact, I’m pretty sure it was his hobby. (In my five-foot-five-inch, pre-SSRI-chewing case, he needn’t have bothered. I remember nervously trying to choke down a feta cheese omelette in a fancy Murray Hill diner while my pal and business partner, Alex Cohn, used his own advanced height and swagger to keep pace with this intense, famous-to-informed-people person.) Beyond Ritter’s description of a 90%-shot documentary that would blow the doors off of Middle-East foreign policy once the as-yet-unarranged editing was finished, I can’t remember a syllable that passed between us. I certainly don’t recall making any claims as to my ability or pedigree as a screenwriter. I’d been editing video for a few years, but since our newly purchased crown jewel was an Avid system and to date I’d only ever worked on a Media 100 (non-linear editing buffs, I’ll pause a minute so you can get ahold of yourselves), I’d have to occupy some other budgetary line-item. I’d had a short film in Sundance as a director, but it was a goofy Saturday-morning cartoon parody produced nearly a full decade before a marvelous genius got in trouble for doing a similar bit on national television. Hardly the right tool for the right job. But I was on the parent-company’s payroll for a grand sum, so by hook or crook a job on this thing would be mine. I’m grateful that (as far as I know) Ritter didn’t have a chippie he had to keep happy—because I’m positive the “Written by” credit would’ve gone to her instead of to ink-still-drying-on-his-co-op-mortgage me.
The writing was quick, interesting work (Alex and I had Ritter’s book and his extensive field materials to work with when he wasn’t in town), taking maybe six weeks, spread out over a much longer overall edit. Ritter had conducted some marvelous interviews with his UN colleagues who’d tried—and failed—to prove that their mission to disarm Iraq after the 1990 Gulf War had been completed successfully. What’s more, Ritter had managed to secure permission to shoot in Iraq during the period following Operation Desert Fox, in which U.S. air strikes slammed book shut on Iraq’s return to normal relations with the world community. He’d brought back impossibly rare interviews with high-ranking Iraqi officials (more than a few faces from those playing cards appear in the movie) that revealed a combination of caginess, exasperation, and world-weariness in the face of a determined and increasingly unilateral U.S. foreign policy machine. He’d also gathered heartbreaking footage from Iraqi hospitals, food banks, and daycare centers straining to operate under the crumbling and hopelessly corrupt UN Oil-For-Food program. (Early on, in a disgusting frat-boy display, Ritter bragged that this footage, when unleashed upon American audiences, would make every woman in the audience “wet”—and that, then, presumably, they’d take their fecund liberal indignation to the voting booth, or his hotel room, or the place they kept their checkbooks…or wherever he wanted ‘em to go. I don’t recall his exact phrasing, but whatever it was, his intense, calculating gaze and precise cadence made him so un-Robert Evans-y as to make the whole thing no fun at all.)
The truth is, however leering and degenerate its author, the footage was competently shot, scrupulously researched and complete—and, sure enough, shot through with startling revelations and serious charges of opportunism and intrigue, to say nothing of some very deep humanity. There’s no doubt in my mind this material and the points we were making about it could have shed an important light on (if not, as Ritter promised, blown the doors off) the disastrous U.S. foreign policy blunders of the coming decade. If only the movie had been any good.
Due to a few critical miscalculations, the movie turned out pretty…well, un-moistening. (See the Times review, above.) Sure, the film gave a rare detailed look into the messy, complicated processes of diplomacy and disarmament. Yes, it revealed—and tried to explain—several important dramatic turns in a gigantic life-and-death soap opera that continues to churn out new episodes to this day. Yes, it unflinchingly accused the world’s one remaining superpower of spreading misery for its own gain—and it did it without looking to lay small-potatoes blame at the feet of one U.S. political party or another. But when push came to shove, it missed. And I know why it missed.
See, back then, at the tender age of 30, my pals and I were being given custody of a considerable amount of money, and unusual opportunities, and hope—specifically, the hope of investors who, contemptuous of their fortunes, had only their hope to lose. They’d entrusted us with their wafer-thin judgment because they thought that, as young people, we knew (or maybe felt) something they didn’t. But for my part, we were so fixated on the things we hadn’t accomplished yet—the bones we hadn’t made—that we didn’t press our points and defend our instincts. I could’ve predicted at least a few of the pitfalls that befell this movie—and I did. A more experienced (or perhaps just more confident) writer or writer/producer would’ve gone toe-to-toe with that towering, intense, and slightly unhinged former UN Chief Inspector who was hell-bent on telling his side of the story, silencing his detractors, and arousing… well, whoever’s boat would float on such a thing. But I didn’t—because I figured he had all the answers. He’d been on the world stage, had faced-off against presidents, and had literally started down the barrel at death. I’d appeared as a bag of potato chips in front of 40 people. Sure, they laughed…so…mission accomplished. But still.
Yet back in late 2000 and early 2001, I was sitting at the moviemaking controls, I and my pals. And I knew pretty instinctively how to work them, and how they might fly us to some weird…moist glory if operated properly. (Clearly, I also knew—and still know—how to mix a metaphor, and MAKE IT STAY MIXED.) There was no stage but the stage we were standing on right then; no experience but the experience we were having trying to get that movie done. And that’s a hard thing to realize when you find yourself, maybe in a little over your head, but nevertheless exactly where you should be.
On the whole, I’ve no complaints. The world has forgotten the movie—to say nothing of the frightening lessons it could’ve taught just as history, as we in America understand it, was teetering on a brink. This is for the best, believe me. But I did the work; put my head together with that of a crazy, embattled, possibly unsavory and certainly not well-understood public figure. And I learned an incalculable amount about subjects I never would have learned about otherwise. (That last part, I now know, is the only reason to do any creative thing at all, outside of lucre.)
Oh, yeah… and, when attempts to get famous voice actors like Alec Baldwin to read the narration for this IMPORTANT MOTION PICTURE on a COMPLICATED and IMPORTANT SUBJECT failed—the scratch track I recorded of the narration I’d co-written became the voice on the finished picture. And I got to have my name listed for all time next to that of a marked man. Now if that won’t moisten a seat or two under the kinkiest people alive—well, I just don’t know what.