Jehane Noujaim’s “Control Room” begins in March 2003, days before the start of America’s so-called “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” 40 million Arab viewers were tuned in to Al Jazeera, the Arab world’s most popular (and only independent) news outlet, to watch George W. Bush’s declaration of war on Saddam Hussein and his regime. We all watched it. But in “Control Room,” we pull back to a far different perspective than we’re used to: that of Al Jazeera’s producers and journalists, on their own turf, their headquarters in Qatar and their office in U.S. CentCom, outside Baghdad.
Three Arab stars emerge in this fascinating documentary. Senior Producer Sameer Khader acts as our eyes and ears at headquarters, while reporter Hassan Ibrahim is our man on the ground. Deema Khatib is a young female producer who never seems to leave the control booth. These three hold us spellbound as we watch them fight to transmit the news in what is – for them – as truly “fair and balanced” a manner as possible, though many in the U.S. might disagree. Of course the biggest complaint about Al Jazeera is that it’s biased against America. Well, duh. Fox News is the number-one cable news network in this country; is Fox News not blatantly biased? Yes, one might say – but Al Jazeera is biased toward Saddam and bin Laden and terrorists in general. See “Control Room” and be well disabused of that notion. (Anyway, even if Al Jazeera were biased that way, again one must ask: Fox News is biased toward an administration that is responsible for the deaths of how many civilian innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan? Do the math.)
The U.S. military and media are here represented chiefly by Press Officer John Rushing, an earnest and movie-star cute young man who does his level best to understand the Arab viewpoint while defending the U.S. military action in every possible way. He often succeeds, but is never really able to explain away the ever-shifting motives for Bush’s war. As journalist Ibrahim phrases it, the fundamental, unchanging U.S. motive seems to be, “Democratize or we’ll shoot you.”
In the end, the greatest achievement of “Control Room” may be to simply remind us, as Americans, that in this age of mega-corporate U.S. news media there are other perspectives on world events besides those of Fox, CNN, MSNBC-ABCBS and whoever else feeds us our information. And just because Al Jazeera doesn’t toe the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rove party line, that hardly makes it a mouthpiece for Al Qaeda. Showing dead Arabs on TV is simply being honest and showing what resulted from U.S. bombs being dropped and guns being fired. Yes, many people on both sides have been and continue to be killed in Iraq. But Al Jazeera is under no obligation to be happy about the U.S. invasion or Arabs of any kind being killed, nor to hide the images they’ve recorded of Arab dead, nor to “get with the program” the U.S. wishes them to. TV news is all about the spin, the slant, the angle. They have theirs and we have ours.
President Bush can blather all he wants about how “You are either with the U.S. or you are with the terrorists.” “Control Room,” unlike the oil-besotted Leader of the Free World, is intelligent and nuanced enough to understand that there are many, many valid viewpoints to be found between those two extremes.