Worth A Look: 35.09%
Just Average: 0%
Pretty Crappy: 1.75%
6 reviews, 21 user ratings
by Robert Flaxman
Control Room purports to be a documentary about Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite channel that is probably the most controversial news channel in the world. Its thesis is actually somewhat hidden behind most of the film, which depicts the media blitz at U.S. Central Command in Qatar during the early days of American involvement in Iraq. In many ways, this was the best thing that could have happened for the film, which gets most of its mileage out of trying to disprove the idea that Al Jazeera is bent on stirring up anti-American sentiment throughout the Arab world.The Al Jazeera producers and reporters featured in the film claim that their channel is simply out to display the news, and that anti-Americanism is merely a natural byproduct of running video where the effects of American bombings on civilians can be seen. This is a reasonable argument, and we see various moments where producers talk about both sides of the issue needing to appear on the channel.
"Truth is stronger than fiction."
In some respects, though, this feels staged. We really never see anything actually airing on Al Jazeera, and so it’s hard to get a feel for how this notion of balance and simple depiction actually comes across – and the repeated insistence that the channel is fair makes it seem like the network doth protest too much. Of course, the Bush administration called Al Jazeera “the mouthpiece of Osama bin Laden” simply because they aired his videos when they received them, as though the videos were not newsworthy. In the end, Control Room convinces the viewer that Al Jazeera’s intentions are in fact good.
The film does have questions to ask about the nature of reality and bias in the news media, which is why the coverage of the Iraq war, though it shifts focus from Al Jazeera a bit, was such a boon for the filmmakers. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld accuses Al Jazeera of fabricating stories that look more anti-American; Samir Khader, an Al Jazeera producer, suggests that the U.S. staged a celebration scene in Baghdad for the benefit of the media. There are several discussions on whether any journalist is truly capable of being objective during a time of war, recalling the montage in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 where various news anchors, including those on mainstream networks like CBS’ Dan Rather, proclaim their patriotism instead of worrying about fair reporting.
Like most documentaries, Control Room has an agenda, and it hits home. Regardless of whether or not Al Jazeera is biased and/or anti-American, the simple truth is that so many Americans are simply incapable of seeing the other side of the story. The army explains that as few civilians were killed as possible (they felt), but that some indeed had been killed – and then everyone seems baffled that people in the Arab world don’t like Americans. Gee, you think? America is viewed as a busybody; yes, Saddam Hussein needed to fall and so do many other Arab leaders, says a producer in a scene on the DVD that was deleted from the film, but the Arab people should be doing it. No one asked for America’s help, and their “help” only makes things worse, even as they seem not to know it. As the British historian Arnold J. Toynbee once put it, “America is a large, friendly dog in a very small room. Every time it wags its tail, it knocks over a chair.”
Critique of this kind lurks behind the scenes in Control Room, though it is not the documentary’s overt purpose to criticize. Al Jazeera feels a duty to the Arab world, and to the world at large, to report on stories that most major news outlets would rather not cover, because the American war machine does not like being criticized – a fact manifested in the bombing of Al Jazeera’s Baghdad offices a day before the suspicious flag-raising in a Baghdad square. Whether or not the U.S. army intentionally bombed Al Jazeera solely to keep their journalists from potentially exposing a fraudulent celebration is unclear, but it’s pretty obvious what the film thinks. Tired of dealing with what they considered to be unfavorable reporting, the U.S. went with intimidation.
In this respect, the title Control Room doesn’t mean what it might seem. At first it seems to refer to the main production room at Al Jazeera, but with the film’s exposé of media spin during the war, it seems actually to refer to the room at Central Command where the military press officers release information to the media. The way in which information is parceled out and manipulated gives new meaning the word “control” – the military is trying to control the media.
In the end, that seems to be the main thesis behind Control Room – how hard it is to report when people don’t want you to say certain things. Al Jazeera is a good starting point because they seem to anger all sides – at the same time as the Bush administration accused them of anti-Americanism, Saddam Hussein’s regime was accusing the channel of running American propaganda. It seems that an element of bias has to be inherent in the news if you’re going to please anybody; pulling no punches just gets all sides thinking you’re against them. Why people have such a hard time with the purpose of “news” is unclear. Not everything has to be delivered with biased intentions, does it? Surely some reporters are capable of eschewing their personal feelings to report on a story.The Al Jazeera story shows how hard it is to win when you’re sitting in the middle of an inferno and both sides are angry that you haven’t slanted enough to their direction. “Al Jazeera” translates as either “The Island” or “The Peninsula”, and while the latter is geographically accurate, the former is metaphorically perfect for a network that finds itself besieged on all sides by raging seas because it dares to report the news in a region of the world where everyone wants you to lie for them.
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originally posted: 01/24/05 15:04:10
|OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 San Francisco Film Festival. For more in the 2004 San Francisco Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Edinburgh Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Edinburgh Film Festival series, click here.
This film is listed in our political documentary series. For more in the Political Documentary series, click here.