Embedded with Al-Jazeera
In 1993, with the first Iraq War supposedly put behind us, the subject of D.A. Pennebaker & Chris Hegedus's The War Room was spin. With devilish ingenuity, James Carville and George Stephanopoulos maneuvered images and sound bites in the battle between Bill Clinton and the elder George Bush for the presidency. The combat was rhetorical, the carnage abstract, the battleground political.
Eleven years later, Jehane Noujaim, a protégée of Hegedus and Pennebaker (they produced her first film, Startup.com, a look at that distant bubble, the dot-com boom), ponders how spin operates in a war that is as painfully literal as the president waging it. In Control Room, she investigates the news station that is "the most controversial . . . in the Arab world." Banned by several Arab governments because of its criticism of their regimes, denounced by the Bush administration as a "mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden," it is also, of course, the most popular in the region, with 40 million viewers. It is how Arabs see the world.
Is it any more or less distorted than our own network news? And why should we believe this movie? Any film looking at the mechanics of spin, the nature of truth and objectivity, calls into question its own veracity. Some of the same criticisms leveled at both Al-Jazeera and Centcom (the US military's central command in the Middle East, also the central conduit for information about the war for all networks) can be leveled at Control Room. It has an agenda, it lacks context, and it can supersede logic and clarity with incendiary, sometimes gratuitous images. And it is propaganda. What it promotes, however, isn't Al-Jazeera but the value of truth and information. It indirectly denounces abuses of distortion and manipulation. And rather than cajoling audiences with fear and prejudice, it provokes them into reflection and debate.
Not always successfully. One of the biggest problems with the film is its lack of clarity, its failure to answer the basic questions of journalism. It starts out with one subtitled date: "March, 2003" After that, you're pretty much on your own. Fortunately, the "who" is one of Control Room's strengths. If there are obvious villains, there are also sympathetic characters with depth and complexity, such as Lieutenant Josh Rushing ("If I were a woman" an Arab journalist gushes, "I would marry you!"), a blue-eyed, John Agar type of Marine working as a press officer. His ideas -- that the war is being fought to free Iraq and to eliminate an immediate threat to the world; that his role is to deliver the truth without distortion -- are genuine. And contradictory, as he freely admits in moments of reflection. He recognizes that he has trouble seeing things from the Arab point of view. When Al-Jazeera outrages the coalition by showing footage of dead Americans and terrified POWs, Rushing muses on how when he saw the images he felt nauseated and enraged. But when he saw similar images of dead Iraqis, he had no such feelings. "That upset me profoundly," he says.
He has a job to do, however; he is, like so many others in this film, just following orders. One of his duties is to wrangle with the likes of Hassan Ibrahim, a large, jolly Al-Jazeera journalist whose deep suspicion of US motives is balanced by his "absolute faith in the American Constitution and the American people." Another shrewd Al-Jazeera personality is Samir Khader, a senior producer who states early on in the film that any commander who doesn't put the media and propaganda at the top of his agenda is a poor military planner. As a journalist, though, he has different values. When an assistant hooks him up with an American "political analyst" who recites an anti-Bush screed, Khader berates the subordinate and tells him they're looking for someone who's balanced. At another point, exhausted after a 19-hour day, he says that he'd gladly work for Fox News and trade "the Arab nightmare for the American Dream."
The discussions between these opponents are civil, even cordial. On the battlefield, it's a different story. In a still unresolved episode, US forces attack the clearly demarcated Al-Jazeera office in Baghdad, killing one journalist. "We got the message," says Khader. Al-Jazeera withdraws from the front line, watching the fall of Baghdad from its offices in Doha, Qatar, 700 miles away. "With victory," Khader, concludes, "no one cares about justifications." But with the Bush administration's victory proving as dodgy as its justifications, maybe there's still a chance for truth to prevail.
Peter Keough is a film critic for the Boston Phoenix.