Focusing on a Losing Battle
For His Directing Debut, A Policy Wonk Revisits Catastrophic Errors in Iraq

By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 22, 2007

Charles H. Ferguson is a policy wonk. By his own admission, "kind of a geek." His last book, published by Brookings Institution Press in 2004, was titled "The Broadband Problem: Anatomy of a Market Failure and a Policy Dilemma."

Did we mention that he used to come to Washington regularly to testify to congressional subcommittees about semiconductor trade policy?

Yet here he sits now, an MIT PhD with a buzz-worthy film on his résumé. He is the writer, director and producer of "No End in Sight," a documentary that took him to the blood-drenched streets of Baghdad, where he shot footage for his first-ever movie.

It catalogues like no other film to date the array of failures in planning and early decision-making in Iraq. In awarding "No End in Sight" a special prize at Sundance this year, the jury called it a "timely work that clearly illuminates the misguided policy decisions that have led to the catastrophic quagmire of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq."

The film opens in Washington and New York on Friday before rolling out to other cities. "Even well-informed [audiences] will find their jaws dropping," Variety predicted in its review.

Did we mention that Ferguson, 52, never even owned a video camera before he decided a couple of years ago to become a moviemaker?

There have been plenty of Iraq-related documentaries, among them overheated screeds ("Fahrenheit 9/11") and policy dissections, and films angled on the U.S. troopsand the Iraqis themselves ("Iraq in Fragments" and "My Country, My Country" both received Oscar nominations). Ferguson's credentials as a former Brookings Institution fellow and lifetime member of the Council on Foreign Relations could have translated to utter boredom on the big screen. And "No End" might have failed as a dilettante's vanity project -- Ferguson put up $2 million from his own pockets to make it.

"I don't have to worry about working for a living," he allows over lunch in Washington, while promoting his movie at last month's Silverdocs film festival.

Did we mention that Ferguson developed a revolutionary Web page application that his start-up company sold to Microsoft in 1996 for $133 million?

The deal left him "comfortable" and awash in Microsoft shares. He now divides his time between an apartment in Greenwich Village and a home in the Bay Area, able to pursue what he calls a lifelong obsession with cinema.

Lean, tan and self-assured, he has the demeanor of a man unaccustomed to failure. Despite the warnings of several acquaintances in the journalism and film worlds that Iraq was too complicated, dangerous and expensive a subject for a first-timer, he drew a bead on a narrow target. In early 2004, Ferguson, who holds a doctorate in political science, was intrigued by some obvious questions -- how did things go wrong in Iraq and who was to blame? He expected that somebody else with documentary expertise would beat him to the topic. He says he deliberated for a year before he realized "no one else was" and finally told himself, "Screw it, I'm going to make this movie."

Finding the Talent

The road to chaos and insurgency in Iraq has been well trod in several books -- notably George Packer's "The Assassins' Gate," Tom Ricks's "Fiasco" and Rajiv Chandrasekaran's "Imperial Life in the Emerald City." But Ferguson is fond of saying that few Americans read nonfiction books. Then again, they rarely flock to the cineplex to watch documentaries either. But, as the director told a Silverdocs audience after screening his film: "If it does reasonably well, several million will have seen it over the next few years."

He also said, "This is the first time I've made a film and I'm sure I made a lot of mistakes."

But his tyro's modesty cloaks a healthy ego and keen intellect. Ferguson is smart enough to know what he doesn't know. Then he surrounds himself with people who have the skills to help him succeed. He did this in the case of filmmaking -- recruiting Oscar-nominated documentarian Alex Gibney as executive producer and "the eminence looking over my shoulder," as Ferguson puts it -- and he did it when he launched his software company.

"He is absolutely the smartest person I've ever known," says Randy Forgaard, the co-founder, with Ferguson, of Vermeer Technologies Inc., which created the Web tool known as FrontPage. "He sees no limits at all, he just jumps into what he jumps into."

Ferguson says he grew up poor as an only child in San Francisco: "There was zero money in the family." His alcoholic father died when he was 19 and his mother held administrative jobs. Medical bills always chewed into the household income -- as a boy he suffered from crippling rheumatoid arthritis and he could not walk for several years, he says. (Now he's an avid jogger.)

Ferguson won scholarships to Berkeley, where he earned an undergraduate degree in mathematics in 1978. He then spent more than a decade doing graduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with a detour into Silicon Valley.

He wrote his 1989 dissertation under the tutelage of Carl Kaysen, a former national security adviser in the Kennedy administration. The topic was the globalization of information technology, and Ferguson became a sought-after expert on trade policy during the Reagan and first Bush administrations. He also advised such firms as Apple and Intel. In 1993, he co-wrote the book "Computer Wars: The Fall of IBM and the Future of Global Technology."

In April 1994, when Ferguson started Vermeer (named after the painter), the Internet was an academic backwater. Only 10,000 Web sites existed, recalls Forgaard, a fellow MIT alum whom Ferguson recruited to be chief technology officer. "In the beginning, Charles was the idea person, and I was the one charged with filling out the details," Forgaard later wrote in a history published by Microsoft.

The Vermeer team worked frantically for 20 months to roll out FrontPage, which Microsoft snapped up soon after its release. Forgaard was able to retire and pursue a career as a magician. (Now 48, he applies his tech savvy to creating illusions for Halloween haunted houses.)

Ferguson says his adventures in Silicon Valley left him utterly burned out. "It took me seven or eight years to fully recover," he says with no hint of hyperbole. "Starting the company was the most exhausting thing I'd ever done. Two weeks in Iraq was easy by comparison."

He published a stinging, score-settling 1999 book called "High Stakes, No Prisoners: A Winner's Tale of Greed and Glory in the Internet Wars," in which he recounted the start-up period and unloaded his rancor on some big players and the culture of Silicon Valley.

Did we mention that the book described Oracle founder Larry Ellison as "severely warped," and called Microsoft CFO Greg Maffei "oblivious to everything and everyone except himself"?

"I regret the tone I took in nailing some of the people that I nailed," Ferguson says today. "I was angry when I wrote it. . . . Some people played pretty rough."

Interestingly, this is how the book describes doing business in Silicon Valley: "It was like palace intrigue in fifteenth-century Florence or perhaps present-day Iraq. You just assume that anyone might try and kill you at any time, that everyone has a hidden dagger and that dagger is probably poisoned."

No Holding Back

Ferguson could have spent the rest of his life as an author-scholar, private equity investor and adviser to high-tech companies. He liked to hold swanky parties at his New York digs, bringing in jazz and classical musicians to entertain.

But the Iraq invasion galvanized him; so did the 2004 presidential race. A Democrat, he raised more than $50,000 for John Kerry's campaign, including his own generous contributions.

He also invested in a film by documentary-maker George Butler ("Pumping Iron"), a friend of the Massachusetts senator who that year released "Going Up River: The Long War of John Kerry." Butler viewed the documentary as the perfect reply to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against Kerry, but says Ferguson considered the film a disaster and told Kerry as much. Butler called the episode "bizarre." ("I do not agree with his characterization," Ferguson responds. "He and I had a personal disagreement.")

Before making his own picture, Ferguson reached out to well-informed journalists, including New Yorker writer George Packer, whose coverage presaged Iraq's death spiral. "I gave him a lot of names of people to talk to. I was sort of handing over my interview list to him," says Packer, who is interviewed in the film. "And he did a very thorough job, especially in getting people to talk on camera who hadn't talked before."

Among them: Richard Armitage, the former deputy secretary of state, who tells Ferguson in the film that a decision to disband the Iraqi army " came as quite a surprise" to him, Secretary of State Colin Powell and others in the administration. "I thought we'd just created a problem: We had a lot of out-of-work soldiers."

The film says that edict by then occupation chief L. Paul "Jerry" Bremer not only blindsided the State Department but also the U.S. military command -- and reversed a plan endorsed by President Bush to re-muster, pay and put to work hundreds of thousands of ex-fighters, who were poised to help secure and rebuild Iraq.

In his research phase, Ferguson also contacted Tom Luddy, co-founder of the Telluride Film Festival and an acquaintance of several years. "I said, 'Tom, I'm thinking about making movies. Who should I talk to?' " Ferguson recalls.

Luddy says Ferguson "got the right guy" when he hooked up with executive producer Gibney, the filmmaker behind "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room."

Agreeing to help Ferguson, Gibney says, required a "leap of faith, but the subject is important." He advised the novice director in technical areas and also told him to suppress rhetoric in the film, ruthlessly simplify its narrative and focus on building characters.

"You're a smart guy, but the story is complicated and your treatment is kind of a mess," Ferguson recalls Gibney telling him. The director says Gibney "turned out to be ridiculously helpful in a thousand ways."

When Ferguson decided to shoot footage in Iraq, he lined up the best security money could buy. He went to Baghdad during a particularly parlous time, about five weeks after the 2006 bombing of the Shiite shrine at Samarra. He departed from Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan with a convoy of four armored pickup trucks equipped with machine gun turrets, he says, and managed to avoid three roadside bombs on a six-hour ride.

In Baghdad he spent $6,000 a day on 10 bodyguards and three armored cars for himself and his Iraqi crew. "We never went back to the same place twice and never stayed more than a half hour," Ferguson says. He passed himself off as French or Canadian.

(Full disclosure: Ferguson based himself for two weeks at The Washington Post's bureau in Baghdad. A bureau staffer at the time, Omar Fekeiki, who is interviewed in the movie, recalls Ferguson working morning to night in the streets.)

Ferguson's future endeavors may include documentaries or thrillers. "I'm completely hooked," he said at Silverdocs. "I hope that I will learn my craft and that I'll get better at this."

As for the future of Iraq, with or without American involvement? It is worth mentioning here, in the end, that even this deeply schooled policy analyst must admit: "I don't know. I don't think anybody does."

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