BAGHDAD — In Iraq in 2003, anything went. Reporters traded jokes with Midwestern soldiers buying milkshakes in Baghdad and drove to Fallujah on a whim to see if it really did have the country's best kabob. Trip planning consisted of pulling out a map, finding a big town you'd never visited, and making sure you had enough gas.
But those days didn't last long. Car bombs, kidnappings, and assassinations were increasing all the time. Then came March 30, when four American security contractors were killed in Fallujah, prompting a retaliatory assault on that city. The optimism of those early days began to bleed away. Friends who hated Saddam Hussein now grumbled about the US, the Sunni Arab insurgency grew in strength, Shiite militias tooled up to oppose them, and Islamist political leaders came to the fore.
The three documentaries that follow capture the transition from hope to confusion and disillusion that all the war's protagonists experienced in those days.
This is the best film of these three and the only one told from the American side. The directors followed a platoon of soldiers from the 82nd Airborne as they navigated the perilous streets of Fallujah in January 2004. It was a time when few Americans had heard of Fallujah - though the 82nd had already shot about 15 protesters there that fall and killed five policemen in a friendly-fire incident. The bitterness and distrust between these young Americans and the city's residents was so great that the movie is an eerie pre-echo of what was to come, not only the destruction of this Sunni Arab town later that year but the apparent massacre of 24 civilians by a squad of marines in Haditha at the end of last year.
Men in the platoon talk of their desire for revenge - in the saltiest of language - after a comrade was killed by a roadside bomb. "I just want to light everyone up," says one. Another talks about wrestling with his desire to kill a group of detainees.
In the quieter moments, members of the platoon say they'd be as hostile if Iraqi soldiers were occupying their hometowns, but they don't expect the city to be peaceful anytime soon. It's "going to take years and years of people like us going out and getting shot at, and blown up, and maybe sometimes getting a chance to shoot back," says Staff Sgt. Chris Corcione, who dropped out of a hard-rock band and cut his waist-length hair to enlist.
This movie makes no effort to hide its biases. Director Maysoon Pachachi is the daughter of Adnan Pachachi, the impeccably dressed 83-year-old diplomat who returned to his homeland after the fall of Saddam Hussein to help restore the secular and more liberal polity he remembered from his youth. The movie tracks his work, as a member of the US-appointed Governing Council, to write an interim constitution and keep the country's squabbling fractions focused on the big picture. His dignified presence, and what has happened since he returned in 2003, lends a bittersweet air to the proceedings. We now know Pachachi and his aides, men with good intentions and ideas, were mistaken in believing they would be relevant in the new Iraq. The political alliance he led in the January 2005 elections garnered just 12,000 votes.
In hindsight, this movie is a look at the ultimately doomed attempts of Iraq's secular elite to rebuild the world it lost to the Baath, and its happiest moments are home movies from the '50s and '60s, showing his family frolicking in its "paradise of a garden." By the film's end, Maysoon describes how the layer of guards her father relied on made him "a prisoner in his own house."
Mr. Pachachi's wry presence saves an otherwise dry film. In a scene in which he and friends are realizing that repairing Iraq is going to be the work of decades, he responds: "Long hauls when you're 80 become rather a serious problem."
This film starts out lively and almost buoyant, as the former art student Hayder Mousa Daffar and a group of friends revel in the freedom to make a movie. There's his jovial pal from art school, Haider, who says there's a man he "loves as I love my father" and pulls a picture of President Bush from his wallet. There's Saad, whose face takes on a beatific expression as he plucks at his guitarlike oud. There are joyful children using the dirtiest words they can think of to insult Hussein, and an impromptu street party the day the US announced his capture.
But even in these early days there are discordant notes. Amid the celebratory gunfire over Hussein's capture, one man complains: "Well, there's still the gas shortage." Another angry passerby praises Saddam and dismisses the filmmaker and friends as traitors.
The strength of the film is Mr. Daffar himself, whose attitude and demeanor shifts throughout the filming, and he ends up on a bus of young men headed to Fallujah who vow to die defending it from US forces. He sinks into himself each time he turns the camera on himself for explication. By the end, he's strung out and droning in monotone. Driving home after dark one day, Saad, the oud player, was fired on by a group of Iraqis. He sped in the opposite direction - into a US patrol and to his death. Daffar and his friends count 122 bullet holes in the car. "He was the most happy at the fall of Saddam's regime. He was the one who thought Iraq would be sophisticated,'' says Daffar. "I don't know how I can explain to you, but I want to say one sentence for you and the US people: Baghdad is hell, really is hell."
• Dan Murphy is the Monitor's Arab World correspondent and has reported extensively from Iraq.