CONTROL ROOM directed by Jehane Noujaim, produced by Hani Salama, Rosadel Varela, with Hassan Ibrahim, Tom Mintier, Lt. Josh Rushing and Samir Khadir. 86 minutes. A Magnolia Pictures production. An Odeon Films release. Opens Friday (July 16) at the Bloor. For times, see Indie and Rep film, page 86. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Bad times make for interesting documentaries. When the dot-com boom started to bust, director Jehane Noujaim was already following a company in the midst of implosion, and the result was 2001's Startup.com, a fascinating portrait of great hopes turned to NASDAQ detritus.
For her second film, Noujaim headed off to cover the coverage of the war in Iraq by hanging out with the folks from Al-Jazeera, the Arab cable news network that has been denounced by Donald Rumsfeld as the voice of al-Qaeda and by the old Iraqi regime as American propagandists. So they must be doing something right.
Control Room is a study of the battle to control the narrative of the war. The American networks presented it as "surgical" strikes and heroic American troops, while the war seen in the Middle East was a lot messier. It showed the casualties.
Noujaim has a gift, in a storm of confusion, for finding great characters to carry her stories. In Control Room, the contrast is embodied by two veterans of Al-Jazeera, Hassan Ibrahim and Samir Khadir, and the young American military liaison, Lt. Josh Rushing, who's remarkably sympathetic to supposed enemy propagandists.
The difference is that Ibrahim and Khadir are intellectually imposing, multi-lingual, well travelled and sharply analytical. In the Arab world, journalism is one of the few high-paid jobs available to the secular intellectual. I've met several Arab journalists over the years, and the impression I've gotten is that they're way smarter than me.
I'm not sure what qualifies someone to be a military press liaison officer in the American Army, but I suspect attendance at Oxford or the Sorbonne isn't among the requirements.
Rushing is a pleasant surprise, though. His realization that Al-Jazeera is in its way no different from Fox or NBC in packaging news for the home audience is one of the film's great moments. The other is Khadir's admission that if he were offered a job by Fox News, he'd take it in a second, "trading the American dream for the Arab nightmare." He also wants to send his children to university in the U.S.
It's a world where the irony spreads like kudzu.
Control Room is at once entertaining and chilling; the longer you listen to Donald Rumsfeld, the more frightening he becomes. Not merely an antidote to watching American network coverage of the war, Control Room offers a revelation of character in the face of tragic events.
Sadly for the fiction filmmakers out there, you can't make up stuff like this.