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CONTROL ROOM (NR) (2004)

Magnolia Pictures

Official Site

Director: Jehane Noujaim

Producers: Hani Salama, Rosadel Varela

Cast: Hassan Ibrahim, Josh Rushing

 Rating:


Like her mentor, D.A. Pennebaker (The War Room, Don’t Look Back), Jehane Noujaim is far better at making socially significant documentaries than good ones. All her expertise is wrapped up in being at the right place at the right time, with the tricky work of editing footage gathered into an elegant whole left mostly neglected. She either simplifies everything in the name of “context” or just edits out most of the irrelevant stuff and leaves what’s left in a process resembling guesswork. The stridently literal opening alternates shots of satellite dishes and TVs with short, bullet-point-like captions explaining when Al-Jazeera was founded, the size of its audience, and so on. To signify “waiting,” birds are shown flying over a deserted city. It’s a PowerPoint presentation for the lobotomized.

Luckily, as in her previous incompetent-but-riveting work, Startup.com, Noujaim is far more successful at being significant. From her limited vantage point at the U.S. Army’s central media office in Qatar, she focuses on the ongoing battles between the world press, struggling to get some (or any) reliable information on the war in Iraq, and an inefficient-at-best, deceptive-at-worst military briefing process. The main focus is on the Arab TV network Al-Jazeera, repeatedly denounced as terrorist propaganda by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; Al-Jazeera indifferently broadcasts the footage of their denunciation and moves on.

One of Al-Jazeera’s reporters describes the complicated network’s mission as encouraging the Arab peoples to “wake up to the world around you”—a mission that could just as easily be applied to American news viewers, but in this case means specifically protesting the religious and political norms of 40 million Arab viewers. Oddly enough, Americans might actually feel better after watching this documentary, which shows a constantly frustrated, wriggling press corps—even such mainstream stalwarts as CNN and NBC get fed up with the obtuse briefing process. While the end results, as journalism, might be disappointing, at least there’s good intent. Al-Jazeera, meanwhile, tries to be an objective ballast against American upbeatness; while not averse to broadcasting nauseating footage of wounded children for no discernible purpose, they still interview the proper American authorities. Their most articulate representative, Hassan Ibrahim, refuses to be blinded by the Middle East’s widespread anti-Semitism as an excuse for the war: “Everything in the Middle East is an Israeli conspiracy,” he notes. Still, by the time one senior Al-Jazeera man claims that “We are the only true journalism in the world,” Noujaim’s point about the impossibility of journalistic objectivity has been made.

Despite its restricted nature—the film is composed entirely of footage of the press corps and war footage taken by Al-Jazeera, with their logo scrupulously pasted on at all times—Control Room raises some fascinating segments out of the loosely edited rubble. The Jessica Lynch rescue mission is all but overtly labeled a distracting cover-up from news of the real progress of the U.S. Army’s advance on Baghdad, and media officer Josh Rushing acknowledges as much when he describes the dilemma the Army faced in how to brief about the advance on the capital without giving away crucial information. In another segment, an argument between Rushing and a journalist about the scale of civilian casualties during Iraqi bombing unwittingly reinforces Robert McNamara’s noting (in The Fog Of War) that, had World War II gone against the Allies, those responsible for carpet-bombing would have been prosecuted as war criminals. Rushing notes that civilian casualties are far less than those of WWII. The journalist fires back that they’re still unacceptable because there were no TV cameras during WWII to reveal the scale of devastation, but contemporary cameras render the current levels unacceptable. Control Room has far less to do with the war in Iraq than the war for viewer attention and media standards.

—Vadim Rizov

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

Itís worth a full-price ticket.

Itís worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...


Mike Doughty



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