There’s been a small flood of documentaries about the Iraq war in the last two years, and movie-industry pundits have ruminated over why they’ve largely failed to click at the box office. Besieged with depressing war news at every turn, American filmgoers, it is said, would rather see something else. That may be, but Charles Ferguson’s superlative No End in Sight begs to be considered the electrifying exceptionthe Iraq movie everyone should see, and surely the one to see if you’re only going to see one.

Most Iraq docs to date have offered ground-level, up-close-and-personal accounts of the experiences of either American soldiers or ordinary Iraqis. No End in Sight is something else again: an overview, a searingly lucid chronicle of the incredible hash America made of the occupation from the time Saddam Hussein’s government fell. It details a series of horrendous mistakes destined to result in the exploding insurgency and chaotic civil war we see now, a situation likely to go on destroying Iraq and draining America’s blood and treasury for years to come.

As exactingly analytical as the film is, it’s also dramatic and emotional, by turns harrowing, astonishing, enraging and sobering. We meet some extraordinary people in it, including American service personnel who seem to embody the best in the national character, people like Ambassador Barbara Bodine, who was held hostage when Saddam invaded Kuwait and then tried to hold Baghdad together when he was deposed; Col. Paul Hughes, an early liaison between American forces and the Iraqi military; and Lt. Seth Moulton, a young Harvard-trained physicist who led his platoon against the Mahdi Army in the 2004 battle of Najaf and also designed and built forts for the Iraqis that cost a fraction of those built by private contractors.

With Americans this bright, capable and dedicated trying their best to turn the overthrow of Saddam into a victory for both the United States and the Iraqi people, how did things go so terribly awry? Quite simply, the film reminds us with one jaw-dropping example after another, the effort failed because these and many other smart and well-intended Americans were under the command of a small pack of knaves and fools in Washington, D.C., whose actions could not have been more injurious to American interests if they had been operating under the personal direction of Osama bin Laden.

A critic friend who saw this movie before it was released predicted it might be embraced by some conservative pundits because it can be understood as showing that the occupation was botched by mishandling, not that the war was a bad idea from the get-go. Well, conservatives have not rallied round the film, but my friend’s point is well-taken: Rather than simply condemning the war outright, No End in Sight suggests that given some effective planning and smart decisions at a few critical junctures, we might have ended up with a stable and cohesive Iraq rather than the present calamity. The sense that failure was not inevitable only adds to the film’s poignancy.

Given his focus, Ferguson doesn’t delve into the war’s ideological causesthe definitive film on that has yet to be madebut quickly sketches in the historical background, from the Iran-Iraq war (where the United States backed Saddam) through the first Gulf War and down to Sept. 11, which had nothing to do with Iraq but nevertheless handed administration hawks a pretext to ignite a war they’d long been lusting after. And rather than dwelling on “shock and awe” or that species of unicorn known as “WMD,” Ferguson zeroes in on the fact that the war’s architects not only acted as if planning for the occupation was of little consequence, but also ignored most of the good, informed counsellike that from Gen. Eric Shinseki about the number of troops it would take to secure Iraqthat they did receive.

The result, we are powerfully reminded, was a disaster that unfolded almost from the moment Saddam’s statue was toppled. Even as citizens of Baghdad celebrated the dictator’s fall, they watched, appalled, as U.S. forces declined to secure the city. Astonishingly, martial law was never declared, prompting an orgy of looting. Under orders only to protect the oil ministry, our troops looked on as 7,000 years of Iraqi culture were stolen or torched at the national museum, archives and library, while 13 other key ministries were destroyed. There are some who say the battle for Iraq was lost at this stage, within the first month. But worse was yet to come.

The core of Ferguson’s film concerns three decisions that occurred very early in the occupation. First, the United States elected not to return sovereignty to Iraqis as quickly as possible, but to rule over Iraq via the newly established Coalition Provisional Authority overseen by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, a staggeringly clueless proconsul. Under Bremer, the United States instituted its two most destabilizing policies: a wholesale “de-Ba’athification” effort that turned hundreds of thousands of civil servants out of work and created violent enmities where none had existed; and disbanding the half-million-man Iraqi army, which not only deprived the country of a security force but also propelled huge numbers of unemployed men into looting Iraq’s arsenals and then fighting to regain some sense of dignity and livelihood.

As many analysts have, Ferguson traces Iraq’s rapid decent into insurgency, lawlessness and sectarian violence largely to these two decisions. Listening to Col. Paul Hughes, who’d built good relations with the Iraqi military before hearing of the decision to dismember it, you can’t help but share his sense of helplessness or his disbelief that these policies were being fomented by people thousands of miles away who did not even bother to consult the forces on the ground on Iraq.

This is the crux of Ferguson’s case. Quite beyond mounting the war on the basis of manipulated and fraudulent evidence, the very small team that planned and executed itBush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et al.did so by ignoring most of the information and sound advice offered them by the State Department, the Joint Chiefs, U.S. intelligence and our best people in Iraq. They were leaders without combat experience (including the president and vice president, Vietnam-era draft avoiders), without knowledge of Arabic or Iraq itself. Their policies were constructed largely on the basis of ignorance, arrogance and willful self-delusion. They were asked to sacrifice nothing; untold thousands, American and Iraqi, paid for their mistakes with their lives.

This may sound like yesterday’s news, yet Ferguson’s reexamination of the occupation’s crucial phases not only proves strikingly synoptic and clarifying, it also demonstrates cinema’s unique value in grappling with the Iraq meltdown. Unlike the stacks of books that delve into the same issues, the film gives us the look of the Baghdad streets as well as the characters who populate this wrenching drama. And seeing the faces and hearing the voices of people as self-evidently honest and honorable as Col. Paul Hughes and as obviously mendacious and self-serving as one of his bureaucratic nemeses, Walter Slocombe, unbeatably illuminates the extent to which this is a story of the American character, one in which the good guys, alas, seem to get shafted at every turn.

No End in Sight is even more significant when set against mainstream television news. Thirty years ago it might have been possible to imagine a network TV news special that offered its eloquence and independent insights. Yet the great failure of Iraq was one in which our corporate media were fully complicit, and this remains only one aspect of the debacle that the country has yet to come to grips with.

Indeed, it is hard to say that any lessons have been learned as a result of these terrible mistakes, and that’s one of the horrifying implications that linger after the film has ended. Still torturously unfolding, the Iraq disaster may have been crafted by Bush-Cheney and company, but it has been prolonged and propelled from bad to worse by weaknesses and failures in every involved sector of the American system: the media, Congress and the political leadership, and the electorate itself. Now the same small corps of miscreants who got us into Iraqand whose impeachment should have commenced long ago, based on the evidence of this filmevidently are plotting to plunge us into war with Iran. Insane that may be, but have you heard any Democrat threaten to stop them?

Tragedy is one of our culture’s most potent and valuable dramatic forms. No End in Sight reminded me that I haven’t seen any fictional tragedies of note lately. This sharply honed documentary, on the other hand, locates the tragic dimension of an ongoing drama that might be called The Great Unraveling of the American Experiment. And the terrible thing is, this tragedy’s far from over; indeed, we may be only nearing the end of Act One.

No End in Sight is coming soon to select theaters.