Control Room
Director: Jehane Noujaim. Documentary. Insider's look at the al-Jazeera and CentCom news stations reporting on the second Iraqi War from Qatar. Featuring Hassan Ibrahim, Samir Khader, Lt. Josh Rushing, Tom Mintier, Abdallah Schleifer, Deema Khatib, David Shuster. Screenplay: Julia Bacha and Jehane Noujaim.

The first press reports about Michael Moore's then-in-progress Fahrenheit 9/11 described the movie, sometimes quoting Moore directly, as a documentary about the Bush family's close ties to the bin Laden family and the ruling dynasty of Saudi Arabia. As we now know, Fahrenheit 9/11 is partly that film but also several other films. Whether Moore's plan changed in the editing room or whether he was purposely keeping his larger designs under wraps is hard to ascertain. Maybe the continuing pull of moral and martial collapse in Iraq simply dictated a different film, shaping and skewing the movie with the force of its own terrible gravity.

Jehane Noujaim's Control Room, another high-profile entrant in the current sweepstakes of anti-Bush, anti-imperialist documentaries, is also not quite the movie you might imagine it to be. Ubiquitously described as a behind-the-scenes peek at the staff and operations of al-Jazeera, the controversial pan-Arab news and media outlet, Control Room eventually drifts into its own growing preoccupations. As drifts go, it isn't huge, and it doesn't hurt the film, except that you're surprised upon leaving the theater (or at least I was) that you still have lots of the same questions about al-Jazeera you might have had walking in. Who exactly owns it? Who watches it, and how, and what do they have to say about what they are seeing? Who is in charge? We meet several figures identified as powerful players in the al-Jazeera hierarchy, and some of them are quite voluble in front of Noujaim's camera, but their exact responsibilities and the relations between them are never pristinely indicated. Obviously, the distinguishing badge of Control Room is the remarkable access that Noujaim achieved both within al-Jazeera headquarters and within those of Central Command, or CentCom, the institutional crux of media operations for that august Coalition of the Willing you (used to) hear so much about. Noujaim, an Egyptian-American who just graduated from college in 1996, and who co-directed the similarly intriguing but slightly opaque in 2001, clearly has the knack for earning the trust of her subjects, making herself unobtrusive within tense surroundings, seeking out illuminating testimonies from peripheral actors, and navigating what must surely have been labyrinthine legal and political obstacles, particularly, of course, in Control Room. The film is a constant credit to her drive and her dexterity, but you wish she'd capitalize on those gifts with a little more focus and undergird the remarkable, provocative surfaces of her films with a bit more in the way of enriched context and depth analysis.

Even as Control Room ceases to function as a perfect diagnostic of al-Jazeera and CentCom, it rarely flags as a smart essay on the surprising permeability of information and personnel between one and the other. If this is a contest, which Control Room is mostly careful not to be, Noujaim's sympathies clearly lie with al-Jazeera. She gathers a wealth of testimonies in their offices and regularly shows the toil of people learning, shaping, delivering, and second-guessing the news. By contrast, CentCom mostly registers through the single personage of Lt. Josh Rushing, a blue-eyed smooth-talker whom the American military has seemingly employed to be a happy-go-lucky, telegenic ambassador for its own regimented information control. Control Room seems to like Rushing, though he isn't always as genial and morally emancipated as he seems to think, or even as Noujaim seems to think. There's a priceless moment when a male al-Jazeera employee professes that had he been born a woman, he would have been smitten with Rushing, and as the Lieutenant's smile lights up, leading instantly to a faux-liberal paean to all the super Arab people he has met on this watch, a distinctly American blend of narcissism and compassion seems perfectly distilled.

That said, we never get much sense of the operations happening behind and around Rushing—which are his job to monitor and explain, even though he always seems to be sitting on a sandbag or lounging in a private office while all the real events distantly transpire. It's tempting to ding Control Room for hunkering around with this good ol' boy so often when we'd like to see, in however compromised a form, the whole orgy of mutual embeddedness that's barely, tangibly out of frame. But you've gotta believe that Noujaim, however diplomatic, was never going to be allowed that far into the anthill of reporters, consultants, and spin doctors, and tacitly, Control Room uses the omnipresence of Rushing and his well-intentioned but deeply flawed sensibility as an icon of the truth being filtered, both psychologically and institutionally. Realizing that her film is heading in this direction whether she wants it to or not, Noujaim prudently switches her focus in order to record, on site, the same press conferences where all of the other eager, underfed journalists in Qatar, including those of al-Jazeera, are struggling to make sense of U.S. Army press releases. We marvel at the moment when a sheepish officer, trying hard to muster some resolve, has to pitch that deck of playing cards as a mighty tool of troop preparation; even more amazing than this primal scene of dumbed-down political thought is the dumbered-down way in which CentCom proceeds to deny the gathered journalists any copies of the instantly notorious deck of cards, even a single deck they can all share. It's a quintessential moment of disclosure and suppression happening at virtually the same time, tragic and also absurd without Noujaim having to editorialize in the slightest.

As the conflict devolves, citizens are maimed, journalists grow desperate, and one al-Jazeera reporter is killed when the U.S. bombs one of their offices, Control Room takes on a Fahrenheit-like identity as a condemnation of the war, period. It still happens to be about journalists, and how they speak and feel through that professional vantage is important, but like Lila Lipscomb in the Moore film, they are essentially vessels for a broader statement. The wife of the murdered al-Jazeera field reporter, whose recorded plea for an end to combat is played at his funeral and preserved in full by Noujaim, offers the most human emblem of grief and dismay, and it's poetically sad that this shattered voice of protest has no face. The al-Jazeera staff seems both deflated and re-energized by their new self-perception as a target of attack, while over at CentCom, Lt. Rushing is hustling to reconcile this new travesty with his maintained conviction that Gulf War II is a necessary evil. (Rushing, incidentally, has since been reprimanded by the Army and is nearing an early retirement based on the candor of his comments here.)

I haven't even touched on some of the most genuinely probing moments in the film, as when the perceptive and charismatic al-Jazeera reporter Hassan Ibrahim, a veteran of BBC News, shares his own comparative insights as to national media cultures. His own tête-à-têtes with Lt. Rushing are fascinating, very nearly Socratic instances of devil's advocate debate, and they nicely lay down some elementary terms of Arab and American oppositions about the war without overlooking a kind of comradeship that seems to exist between the two men. A centerpiece sequence captures the dubious, sinister moment when imprecise American reports about their progress into "the Baghdad region" are scuttled to the sidelines by the propitious hero-making of Jessica Lynch: the looks on the reporters' faces, ornery with the knowledge that they are being helplessly manipulated, is quite a coup for the media archvie around this war. Elsewhere, Tom Mintier, an experienced international reporter for CNN, marvels at CentCom's incompetence and intransigence, while Samir Khader, one of the heads of al-Jazeera, announces his own startling dream of working for Fox News. Khader, acerbic and self-conscious to the point of purposeful provocation, is an especially hard figure to pin down, but since Noujaim elsewhere seems a little bashful about pressing the al-Jazeera higher-ups, it's useful to the putative balance of her film that we're never quite comfortable with this man.

Control Room, ultimately, presents a series of testimonies, impressions, and troubling moments that bespeak a judiciously critical response to the escalating war and its supportive apparatus of media control. Because backdoor insights increasingly give way to the preservation of public crises, the film inevitably switches from conveying new information to affirming and tracing the moral outrage that Noujaim's audience is already likely to arrive with. Whatever she selects as her next project, I'll hope to see her nail down a sharper, swifter outline of her subject instead of basing so much of her films on purely affective moments. But as affective moments go, these are especially telling and valuable ones, and Noujaim has done better than most of us at being in the right places at the right times to catch the imperial machinery in its most vulnerable, damning moments. Since the whole point of Control Room is to advocate for democratic media over the unilateral imposition of images, I suppose it would violate the spirit of things to call the film "required viewing." But sometimes, as Noujaim also teaches us, you have to roll with the times and the circumstances you are handed. So, there you are: Control Room—go see it, now, or else! B+

Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Documentary Feature

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