What appalls Ferguson and makes his movie white-collar harrowing is Bush's almost-exclusive focus on former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Vice President Dick Cheney, as well as their willingness to "penalize" people who spoke up against them. The result, says the former executive, was a disastrous corporate culture.
After Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki contradicted Rumsfeld's troop estimates before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Rumsfeld ridiculed and sacked him. Ferguson is still amazed that "the president does nothing, has no reaction, no involvement.
"If the chief of staff of the Army, who had much more experience than the secretary of Defense, says something like that, I hope I would listen," he says. "When this kind of thing comes down from the people at the top, it's devastating."
As Ferguson began digging, he found "a strikingly large number of people who had tried to do good things but had met brick walls, or brick ceilings."
A cinematic quest
The impetus to do the film came from a dinner with George Packer, a longtime poker pal and The New Yorker's man in Iraq. It was mid-2004; Packer had just come back from a trip to Iraq and conjured a vision of catastrophe.
"Things were not OK, were very, very different than they were being portrayed ... much more complicated and now getting a lot worse," Ferguson recalls. "What he was telling me was coming not from ideology or from preconceived ideas, but from what he had seen."
Ferguson had dreamed of making films but had only loved them from afar. His sense that Iraq was an urgent and compelling subject, and his trusted friend's insistence that the real story wasn't getting told, ignited a cinematic quest.
He immediately began reading up and interviewing sources ranging from journalists to think tank fellows to a deputy secretary of state. He journeyed to Iraq with a security detail that cost him $6,000 a day.
And he elicited extraordinary testimony from lesser-known figures, such as Col. Paul Hughes, who comes off as an American hero of the old stripe -- a cross between Jimmy Stewart and a young Buddy Ebsen. He was ready to deliver 137,000 names of Iraqi soldiers able to serve the coalition before L. Paul Bremer dissolved the Iraqi army.
But Gibney found it difficult to see how Hughes and other characters fit into the pattern that Ferguson was drawing of wisdom denied. Gibney wanted the director to establish stronger personalities on film. Ferguson confesses, "I feared that if I started going too far toward personality and drama and emotion, I would sacrifice veracity and maybe credibility in the policy world. It was a difficult balance."
But Ferguson has crack film instincts, too: He uses split-screen to convey the impact of Iraqi carnage and to abet his drive for complexity. Intelligence of every kind becomes exciting.
"I made this film precisely because it was an Iraq film that hadn't been made," says Ferguson. "If there were another movie that laid out the mistakes, I wouldn't have made this one."
Gibney says that would have been a loss. "There are many things that make up an 'authored' piece, a film that has a voice, like a real piece of writing," he says. "Because of who he is, no one could have made this movie except Charles."