Like her mentor, D.A. Pennebaker (The
War Room, Don’t Look Back), Jehane
Noujaimis 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
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...