Jehane Noujaim’s video documentary Control Room, an engrossing behind-the-scenes look at the Al-Jazeera Arab television network, is an easy film to overpraise. Noujaim’s fly-on-the wall technique gives us seemingly intimate access to Al-Jazeera’s offices and reporters as they navigate the early stages of the U.S.-led war on Iraq, and it’s a fascinating sight to see. Control Room portrays a battleground where words and images are weapons of mass information, a theme not too far removed from Jonathan Demme’s recent video testimonial The Agronomist. But where Demme deals with the efforts of a single man, Noujaim details a varied ensemble (primarily Arabs and Americans), editing her footage in such a way as to provide a clear narrative thread of incident, causes and effects writ cinematically large.
Differing points-of-view abound: Lieutenant Josh Rushing, an American military press officer, stubbornly adheres to a naïve belief in the war’s humanitarian purposes, and he’s often shown ineffectually arguing with the much more passionate and erudite Al-Jazeera journalist Hassan Ibrahim. Much is made of the infamous deck of Saddam Hussein playing-cards: The film’s greatest comic moment comes when the American army press representative relays, through several lower-tier scapegoats, his inability to give copies of the deck to gathered reporters. They hadn’t made any extras, you see.
Such examples point to Control Room‘s undeniable success as drama in addition to its general failure as documentary. It’s clear that Noujaim, who has spent significant amounts of her life in both Arab and American countries, means to portray both Al-Jazeera and the American media with as objective an eye as possible. Hers is not a film born out of one-sided hatred. Why then does Control Room feel so Al-Jazeera biased, with the Americans coming off as cynical and/or clueless buffoons? I’d suggest that Noujaim has taken on more then her vérité style can handle.
The film’s focused portrayal of Al-Jazeera clashes with its more haphazard grouping of American media outlets. Unlike a recent 60 Minutes report, which ably contrasted the Arab-run Al-Jazeera with the U.S.-funded and housed Ahurra network, Control Room‘s two sides are unfairly matched. Al-Jazeera’s David faces off with America’s conglomerate Goliath and inevitably wins the thematic arguments because of a pronounced individuality that results from Control Room‘s inevitable ideological bias. It’s not wrong to sympathize with Al-Jazeera—both human and narrative nature pretty much dictate our identification with cinema’s underdogs. But as Noujaim is focusing on fact, not fiction, she has assumed an extra burden of responsibility, a necessary morality undercut by her manipulation of factual imagery into fanciful drama.
Control Room works so well from a narrative standpoint that it would be wrong to completely discourage potential viewers. To those who rely on the power of moving images to illuminate the unfamiliar, the film initially feels transcendent, its hothouse mixture of race and politics leading the way toward a climactic rainstorm sequence both apocalyptic and cleansing. Yet Control Room should be viewed cautiously with a clear-eyed awareness of its stylistic confines and ideological limitations, flaws which too often reduce the film, like so much Platonic shadowplay, to blind hagiography.