"Live From Baghdad"? It seems like only yesterday. In fact, it seems like only today.
An American president named George Bush is threatening Saddam Hussein with aggressive military action -- but in "Live From Baghdad," it's George H.W. Bush making the threats, and the year is 1990, with the attack actually starting in early 1991.
As a movie, "Live From Baghdad" constitutes another first-class production from HBO. (It premieres tonight at 8 and repeats Tuesday and Dec. 15 at 9 p.m., among other times.) "Baghdad" also, of course, represents an exquisite piece of timing -- HBO unveiling a movie about a war with Iraq just as another one seems grimly imminent.
By and large, the timing was accidental. Former CNN producer Robert Wiener (pronounced "Weener," not "Whiner"), who co-wrote the original screenplay for the movie (and the book it was based on), was trying to get the film made a decade ago. In subsequent years, the project went through many changes and the script went through many rewrites; it is now credited to four different writers, including Wiener and John Patrick Shanley, the most famous.
During the long gestation, Wiener might have been worried that the movie would look dated when it finally appeared. He was saved when the old cliche "history repeats itself" proved true again. "Live From Baghdad" is not the story of the war itself, however, but the story of how CNN, once snidely derided by other networks as Chicken Noodle News, came of age and earned worldwide respect on one harrowing night.
Considering the large role he played in writing the film and getting it made, Wiener does come off as self-aggrandizing at times, particularly since as a character, he's far less interesting than Peter Arnett, delightfully played by Bruce McGill but not arriving on the scene or in the movie until late in the process. Anyway, it seems laughably disingenuous when, in one of the last scenes, as Baghdad is being shelled, Wiener tells a fellow journalist, "This is not about me." That calls for an "Oh, brother," since Wiener has made himself the star of CNN's effort.
But all that rewriting paid off. The movie now is like a canny combination of "Broadcast News" and "The Year of Living Dangerously" -- the story of a team effort to get CNN taken seriously by covering a global crisis as it had never been covered before. Director Mick Jackson helps keep the film fast-moving, compelling and rich with exotic detail.
It does glorify CNN but never seems a mere advertisement. There is also at least one subtext: War, whoever starts or wins it, invariably represents failure. Wars happen because humans have failed at the alternatives. It doesn't seem likely that the movie will build support for George W. Bush's current campaign against Iraq, because as it reminds us, Daddy Georgie's war had a baldly aggressive provocation, the invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi troops.
The horror wreaked on Kuwait is brought back vividly during a sequence in which Wiener and his team travel to Kuwait to investigate allegations that Iraqi troops had ripped babies out of incubators as part of their plundering -- remember? Too late, Wiener realizes that he and CNN have been duped by the Iraqis for propaganda purposes and that they were allowed into Kuwait only so the Iraqis could use them to help discredit the incubator allegations.
In fact, the CNN team faces several failures and setbacks during the weeks before the American assault. Iraqi officials play maddening mind games with Wiener and his colleagues. "We've got to own this story," CNN President Tom Johnson tells Wiener at the outset, and eventually, of course, CNN does just that, but it really seems that luck played almost as large a role as cunning.
"Baghdad" could be said to suffer from a central structural problem: It's like 85 minutes of prologue to a 20-minute movie, the 20 minutes given over to the attack on the city and its defense, which is when the CNN team really proved itself. This is lavishly re-created with special effects -- antiaircraft fire from the ground looking oddly pretty as it zooms into the night sky, while the journalists watch awestruck from their very precarious perch in the al-Rashid Hotel.
Michael Keaton does a brisk, punchy job as Wiener; we can sense a desperation beneath the bravado, a strutting confidence that masks haunting doubts. As often, though, Keaton has the irritating habit of mumbling many of his lines. You may feel the need to punch up the closed-captioning to find out what he's saying.
When he gets the Baghdad gig, Wiener demands that fellow producer Ingrid Formanek be sent with him. But this character, played as too much of a glamour puss by Helena Bonham Carter, doesn't seem as important to the story as Formanek must have been in real life. And the actress appears severely distracted by hair issues.
One of the best scenes is technically uneventful. Wiener shows up at the Ministry of Information for an 8 a.m. appointment with an Iraqi official. He looks out the window and sees yet another huge poster of Saddam Hussein being painted across the street. For hours and hours he waits and waits, and each time he peeks out the window, the poster is closer to completion.
The fact that other journalists arrive for appointments and refuse to submit to the mind games -- stomping out in huffs -- underscores Wiener's wisdom about dealing with inscrutable obstacles. The script resourcefully dramatizes the resourcefulness required by foreign correspondents venturing into strange lands, and there appear to be few stranger than Iraq. Wiener's relationships with his Iraqi contacts are very effectively portrayed, right down to his complimenting Saddam Hussein on his tie as he attaches a microphone to it for an interview.
The script gives Wiener a speech or two in which he declares that one of his roles as a journalist is to help prevent war. Really? That doesn't sound very journalistic or very realistic. Most of "Live From Baghdad," however, has a powerful ring of truth and a striking sense of authenticity. Instead of being dated, it's as relevant and urgent as tomorrow morning's headlines -- however insane or infuriating they may turn out to be.
'Brilliant but Canceled' In commercial television, nobody wants a "cult hit" unless the cult has 20 million or 30 million members. Prime time is no meritocracy where good shows thrive and bad ones die. Quality is no guarantee of success.
Such are the hard cold facts behind "Brilliant but Canceled," a captivating 90-minute documentary premiering tomorrow night at 9 on Trio, the young, industrious and terribly hip cable network that is also available on the DirecTV satellite system. "Brilliant but Canceled" is also the theme for December programming on Trio, which has unearthed a trove of TV treasures that had brief but glorious lives.
Trio will air such gems from the past, near and distant, as Larry Gelbart's "United States" (starting Monday at 7:30 p.m.), "Action" (Monday at 8 p.m.) and "The Ernie Kovacs Show" (Monday at 11 p.m.). They join other shows already running: the dark and compelling Fox drama "Profit" and a legendary series from the early '60s, "East Side/West Side" with George C. Scott and Cicely Tyson. And many more.
Why do some great shows go to very early graves? It's all explained and illustrated in the documentary, which is narrated by former Conan O'Brien sidekick Andy Richter. An impressive array of TV experts contribute anecdotes, opinions and rueful true stories about their frustrating experiences with network programmers. The experts include, in his last interview, producer Bruce Paltrow, who died Oct. 2 in Rome.
Paltrow's successes include the long-running NBC medical hit "St. Elsewhere" and the CBS high school drama "The White Shadow." In the documentary, though, Paltrow remembers "High," a short-lived series that the producer laments was "too cutting-edge" for its time.
Some of the failures cited in the program are truly fabled. "Buffalo Bill" was hugely acclaimed when it premiered on NBC in 1983, but the public stayed away in the proverbial and fatal droves. Dabney Coleman, who starred as Bill, is cynical about the whole thing. "The more intelligent" you are, Coleman claims, "the less you watch television."
This seems too sweeping a generalization. It might ring truer if he'd said, "The more intelligent you are, the less you watch ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox." New sources of programming that are part of the cable revolution have increased the amount of frivolous junk available, but there are probably more smart shows around, too.
Cable shows can survive with smaller audiences than network shows need. And cable seems a little less subject to the tyranny of demographics: The networks don't just want lots of viewers, they want lots of viewers between the ages of 18 and 49. Everybody else can go fly a kite as far as network executives are concerned.
Quirkier shows seem to have a slightly better chance of getting on the air these days, but it's also true that networks rely more than ever on testing of potential new shows before small and not necessarily representative focus groups and that they're quicker than ever to cancel shows that don't catch on right away.
"The Honeymooners," Jackie Gleason's kitchen-sink comedy about the lives and battles of Ralph and Alice Kramden, was actually a ratings failure when it originally aired on CBS in 1955, beaten by Perry Como on NBC. Those 39 filmed "Honeymooners" episodes are, of course, now considered classics and the show one of the most imitated ever produced.
What TV show has the dubious honor of being the highest-rated program ever to be thrown off the air? According to the documentary, it's "Bridget Loves Bernie," a CBS sitcom that occupied, for a while, the cushy time slot following "All in the Family" in the '70s. But CBS received so much angry mail about the show's premise -- an Irish Catholic woman marrying a Jewish cab driver -- that controversy literally drove it off the air.
The producers of "Brilliant but Canceled" found David Birney, the co-star of that peculiarly ill-fated show, to talk about it. He still seems justifiably bitter and baffled about the dirty trick CBS played on him.
Others with sad tales to tell include the truly original and imaginative Paltrow, actor James Earl Jones (represented by a crime show called "Paris," as well as a controversial episode of "East Side/West Side"), the great Gelbart and former network executives Warren Littlefield (NBC) and Mike Dann (CBS).
The show and the theme-month are another coup for Trio, which is a livelier and more ambitious network than Bravo and A&E put together. It's brilliant but lesser known, available in fewer than 20 million homes -- 20 million lucky homes, that is.