2004Director: Jehane Noujaim
Cast: Hassan Ibrahim, Deema Khatib, Lt. Josh Rushing
he story of the news story is that one may never truly know the real story. Jehane Noujaim, the woman who brought us the dismaying and fortuitously timed documentary Startup.com, returns with an insider's view of Arabic news network Al Jazeera from the front lines of the Iraq war. The front lines of the media war, that is—one that took place not in Tikrit or Baghdad but Qatar, at the outpost known as Central Command, home to news outlets from around the globe, from the austere and British to the "fair and balanced". Al Jazeera, which if you'd allow US media to make up your mind for you you'd know as the "voice of Al Qaeda", was on the scene as well, mobilized to broadcast their take on the war in Iraq to Arabic-speaking people across the world through their channel and website.
Noujaim spends significant time with Jazeera newsman Hassan Ibrahim, a former BBC reporter assigned to cover Iraq's tragedies. Ibrahim's struggle to deliver the news in the face of resistance, anti-Jazeera bias, and US government spin becomes more and more evident as time unfolds. From the get-go, Al Jazeera is accused of conflating stories into more negative and gruesome tales than what really happened, while on the flip-side, Al Jazeera staffers regularly express concern for the United States' denial and downplaying of the inoocent blood they see being shed on Middle Eastern soil. In the middle of the war for the truth lies the media gambit: war is not fought or won by military strength alone, naturally.
Lieutenant Josh Rushing, a fresh-faced, all-American Marine in charge of media relations at Central Command, is our guide through the US side of the story; the US side of the media war. Rushing is philosophical and candid, while remaining firmly convinced in the righteousness of both the US's position on the war and in its handling of its media coverage. He is not unaware that Al Jazeera's nationalism is just one end of a cultural continuum that ends on the other side with Fox. (His openness is matched by that of Al Jazeera producer Deema Khatib, who freely admits that in spite of everything, he wishes for his children to have a future in the United States, and that he himself would work for Fox in a heartbeat.)
Control Room's success is not in the truths that it reveals but rather in the questions it prompts and the way it succeeds in crumbling any idealist's illusion of objectivity. Noujaim has illustrated, sometimes painfully, just how constructed the news really is—from shots of enthusiastic Saddaam statue-topplers to the overblown importance of Jessica Lynch. The gravity of the media's role in the fury of conflict and combat is not underplayed, particularly when an Al Jazeera outpost is bombed—an act the network could only construe as an intentional message from the United States.
Yet the United States—as has too often been the case—so many times managed to be its own worst enemy. Denying the existence of photographs or video of destruction, downplaying the loss of innocent life and getting caught on tape saying all kinds of ridiculous things about treating prisoners humanely and the sanctity of the constitution all gradually come back to bite the United States in the ass via Jazeera's counter-coverage.
Whereas a movie like Fahrenheit 9/11 uses media clips as loaded bombs, Control Room's delivery is more delicate and even-handed, showing the difficult aspects of loyalty, nationalism, and fairness on both "sides" of covering the Iraq war. Through the volleyed accusations and undeniable realities of pain and struggle—even on the side of the US—comes a film full full of headaches and challenges, and one more small step towards opening the minds of Americans and those who must live with their decisions.
By: Liz Clayton
Published on: 2004-07-21