After 15 months of US media coverage of the war in Iraq, Jehane Noujaim's "Control Room" is like an open window that sucks the smog out of the room. Clear-sighted and fair-minded, sympathetic to everyone except Saddam Hussein and the topmost level of the US government, this modest yet necessary documentary digs into the tussle between bias and balance in modern journalism and sends you out debating where one side's reporting becomes the other side's distortion.
The focus of "Control Room" is Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based independent news network that functions as the controversial CNN of the Arab-speaking world. The cast of characters, however, extends into the American network news corps and the press offices of the US military at Central Command in Qatar, and the period covered runs from just before the onset of US operations on March 20, 2003, through the taking of Baghdad less than a month later.
Noujaim, a Cairo-born, US-based director who made the scrappy 2001 Internet documentary "Startup.com," takes her camera into the offices of Al Jazeera, where she finds seasoned journalists proud of working for the only news organization in the Arab world that isn't a state puppet. At the same time, these men and women are wrestling with the question of whether journalistic objectivity can be maintained -- or even should be maintained -- in the face of a US media they see as obsessed with delivering only the good news to the folks back home.
Their arguments are articulate, impassioned, all over the map, and hammered out in the heat of the moment; Noujaim captures a remarkable scene of senior producer Samir Khader berating a staff member for lining up an American activist who claims the war is just a grab for Iraq's oil. The guy was trashing his own country, the staffer says in defense, but Khader responds, as if explaining the moon to a child, "We want guests who are balanced."
Khader is a smart and charismatic figure in "Control Room," one who with quiet defiance backs his network's footage of Iraqi casualties as supplying evidence of war's human cost that Americans don't want to know about. (On Al Jazeera's images of a wounded, crying child, he bristles, saying: "I'm supposed to call this incitement? I call this true journalism, the only true journalism in the world.") Khader can dismiss the flag-waving Iraqi mob that accompanied the US entry into Baghdad as a staged event and, in the next breath, admit he'd willingly work for Fox News and "exchange the Arab nightmare for the American dream." It sounds like hypocrisy; it plays as realpolitik candor.
Another vivid character is Al Jazeera (and former BBC) journalist Hassan Ibrahim, a burly, bustling newshound who horselaughs with anger at Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's charges that Al Jazeera's interviews with US POWs violated the Geneva Conventions. "What about Guantanamo Bay?" he asks in disbelief. "What about the Iraqi prisoners on American TV?"
We see the pressures on the network from the Arab side, as a hard-line Sunni leader, Ahmed Kubeisi, browbeats an Al Jazeera producer into accepting that all US news reports are propaganda. And we see the dangers of frontline reporting, with footage of Al Jazeera correspondent Tarek Ayoub just before a US missile slammed into the network's Baghdad offices and killed him on April 8, 2003.
The American and global media and their wary military handlers get screen time in "Control Room," too. Some reporters, such as NBC's David Shuster, come off as smugly insular; others, like Tom Mintier of CNN, appear to have a more measured perspective. (Eagle-eyed viewers will spot a brief appearance by a Globe reporter, Anne Barnard, at a press conference). All are struggling to get at the truth even as they debate among and within themselves what constitutes journalistic truth in such a context.
At times, the disconnect between military need-to-know and media gimme-now is comical, as when an Army spokesman announces the publication of the "Iraq's Most Wanted" cards -- but then won't let the journalists see them. (The reporters fly into fits of amusingly apoplectic rage.)
"Control Room" also occasionally sends a frisson of ghoulish irony up your spine, as when President Bush, on March 23, 2003, condemns the Al Jazeera interviews with US prisoners and says, "I expect POWs to be treated humanely, just as we are treating the prisoners we have captured humanely." But Noujaim's film is at its best in its sympathetic and complex portrayal of Lieutenant Josh Rushing, an earnest young US army press officer at CentCom whose naivete about war and news-gathering slowly crumbles before our eyes.
In soul-searching discussions with Al Jazeera's Ibrahim and remarks to the director's camera, Rushing moves from adamantly insisting the Arab network is biased in favor of Hussein's regime to admitting to the distortions of both Al Jazeera's nationalism and Fox News's patriotism to confessing to his own horror when he realizes footage of dead Iraqis doesn't outrage him the way similar pictures of US casualties do. "It upset me profoundly," he confesses, and you may feel for the guy even as you wonder what he thought he was getting into in the first place.
"Control Room" is about the search for common ground, among journalists on all sides of the conflict and, through them, between viewers in America and the Arab world. Only within that common ground, Noujaim believes, can something like a workable, personal truth be found. She ends the film on a note of cautious optimism, with Rushing and Ibrahim emerging from their arguments as respectful friends.
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Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.