It's March 2003 and Al-Jazeera, the massively popular Arab news network, is in a fight of its own. The station is working day and night covering the war from the Iraqi perspective, interviewing citizens who have lost their homes and families to American bombings, showing injured Iraqis rushed to hospitals.
The U.S. government says the station is pure propaganda, calling it a mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden. Meanwhile, in the Iraqi desert, the U.S. military has set up Central Command or CentCom, which provides the news, or rather its own version. On the day when the coalition forces move into Baghdad, the news item of the day is secondary information on the rescue of Jessica Lynch. Um, what was that again about propaganda?
At the center of Noujaim's film are the people who put together the news, so you're not subjected to a one-track rant on the evils of media. Human beings, not machines, report the news, and it's impossible not to be swayed by the craziness. There's Hassan Ibrahim, a teddy bear of a man and an Al-Jazeera reporter (as well as bin Laden's former classmate), who can't help but question America's logic for invading Iraq, especially when it's helped Iraqis support Saddam Hussein.
Ibrahim's main contact (and partner in debate) at CentCom is Lt. Josh Rushing, the center's press officer who trumpets America's cause, but doesn't have enough cynicism to ignore the Arab point of view. You can see that the young man has a glimmer of enlightenment his fellow soldiers lack. And then there's Al-Jazeera's senior producer, Samir Khader, who admits he wants his station to get a reaction out of the Arab people, but berates his interview producer for not booking a more objective guest. Later, he admits that if Fox News had a job opening, he would take it. After all, he wants the American dream, too.
Noujaim's depiction of the human side of war reporting is illuminating. Control Room is defined in how she presents war reporting as a battle of viewpoints. As Al-Jazeera's online director says in defending posting footage of American hostages, "If there was neutrality there'd be a welcoming of all information from all sides." When the U.S. "accidentally' bombs two Baghdad television stations, killing an Al-Jazeera reporter, Noujaim's theory hits you in the head like a right hook: could the U.S. stoop that low to prove it's right? Sure.
The next day, when Baghdad falls, staffers of Al-Jazeera sound defeated. They've lost their own war and what's even more insulting is that they've been forced to follow the U.S. version of events, which they immediately question. Why, in the most populous areas of Baghdad, is no one around? How come the celebrators don't look Iraqi? And why does one have a pre-1991 Iraqi flag in his pocket? Who would carry that around?
There are more issues, especially America's hazy military logic as expressed by Rushing, for viewers to consider. (Rushing basically admits we invaded Iraq on a hunch.) Control Room comes at a great time, five months before the Presidential election and released close to the debuts of Fahrenheit 9/11 and the Beastie Boys' new album, which is chock full of anti-Bush sentiment. The time has come for Americans to start asking questions and to go to the voting booths with a purpose. Control Room could be just one of those pop culture catalysts.
Run time: 84 mins
In Theaters: Friday 18th June 2004
Box Office USA: $2.2M
Box Office Worldwide: $2.6M
Distributed by: Magnolia Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Fresh: 105 Rotten: 4
IMDB: 7.8 / 10
Director: Jehane Noujaim