"Control Room," Jehane Noujaim's gripping account of the Iraq war as seen through the eyes of the Arab satellite news channel al-Jazeera, may be the first movie of the year to qualify as urgently important. Thoughtful, carefully calibrated and often infuriating, this engrossing portrait of competing notions of truth is at once a thrilling real-time chronicle of the birth of a free press and a sophisticated philosophical treatise on the nature of objective reality. With a clear eye and a sure hand, Noujaim threads the audience through a labyrinth of conflicting perceptions and prejudices, leaving viewers edified, chastened and, with luck, newly committed to thinking critically about their dinnertime newscasts.
Blessed with good timing and virtually unlimited access to her sources, Noujaim -- who co-directed the 2001 documentary "startup.com" -- was at al-Jazeera's headquarters in Qatar on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003. There, Arab journalists, along with their 40 million viewers, watched as President Bush announced his plan to invade a country just 20 miles away. Eventually, al-Jazeera reporters went to Baghdad to cover the war, and one died there, killed in a U.S. attack that, even though it was deemed justified in a later investigation, looks from the film's perspective like nothing short of a scandal.
But "Control Room" is no anti-American screed. Rather, in interviewing Arab and American journalists and their military handlers, Noujaim -- an American of Egyptian descent -- creates a nuanced meditation on how both Arab and American media outlets pander to the nationalism of their respective audiences and how crucial managing those biases has become to the post-Vietnam military.
If "Control Room" has protagonists, they are Hassan Ibrahim, an avuncular, erudite reporter for al-Jazeera, and Lt. Josh Rushing, press officer at the U.S. Army's Central Command headquarters. Some of the film's most engaging moments take place during their encounters, which usually spin out into improbably profound conversations about perception and reality. Whether they are misunderstanding each other about weapons of mass destruction or how Iraq and America figure in the Arab-Israeli dispute, these two men seem to personify the gulf between the West and the Arab world that lies at the root of the surrounding conflict. If their remarks often reflect a stubborn refusal to comprehend the other side, they are just as often deeply revealing, such as when Rushing candidly compares the respective spins he gives to al-Jazeera and the Fox News Channel.
The fact that spin, not truth, is the first priority of military communications becomes increasingly clear as Noujaim sits in on Army news conferences in which officers either stonewall attempts to get information or push the Jessica Lynch story despite the day's bigger news of U.S. tanks invading Baghdad. "They buried the lead," a frazzled American reporter says, "and they're good at it."
If Ibrahim and Rushing are the stars of "Control Room," the film's most indelible and in many ways heartbreaking character is Samir Khader, al-Jazeera's soft-spoken senior producer who, although sympathetic to Arab nationalism, is deeply committed to the role of the press in a free society. Tirelessly trying to keep ahead of breaking events, including the death of one of his employees, he cuts a sympathetic figure as he comes under fire from both U.S. and Iraqi officials for carrying the other side's water. (With each side so zealously trying to control its images, it may be a good sign that they're both unhappy with him.) In one scene, he upbraids one of his producers for choosing to interview an ideological U.S. academic. "That wasn't analysis!" he yells. "That was a crazy hallucination!"
Whether the outburst was for the benefit of Noujaim's camera or not, Khader comes across as, if not entirely objective, at least an intellectually honest broker in a communications battle that is sure to rage on long after the last "Mission Accomplished" sign comes down. "Between us, if I'm offered a job at Fox, I will take it," he confides, fully aware of the irony, "to exchange the Arab nightmare for the American dream." In addition to its taut drama and cautionary lessons about modern media, "Control Room" may be most valuable for its depiction of the strength of democratic ideals, even in the most precarious and contradictory of circumstances.
Control Room (84 minutes, in English and Arabic with subtitles, at area theaters) is not rated.