Compared to Outfoxed, another documentary that covers modern media and propaganda, Control Room is reserved and traditional. It lacks the pop music, open politics, and Powerpoint presentation. For this reason--because Control Room concerns itself with real journalists as they moved through real events--it's a much more persuasive and humanizing effort.
Which is beside the point, really, although it makes a nice introduction. Outfoxed set out to highlight the bias and manipulation of the Fox news network, and used a similarly over-the-top presentation to make its point. It had a nice, blunt thesis statement. In contrast, it's harder to isolate the thesis of Control Room, assuming it has one. The documentary follows producers and reporters from Al Jazeera, the world's most controversial Arab news network, through the first months of the Iraq war.
The title of Control Room could refer to the actual booth where much of the footage takes place, as the producers splice together footage from the war, talk shows, and press conferences to create the channel's coverage. I have a feeling, however, that it actually refers to the power relationships that take place on and off camera through the news. Al Jazeera is introduced as a network that isn't completely objective, but attempts to spread journalism and freedom of speech through the Middle East. Because of those efforts, it was banned from several countries for criticizing their regimes.
When the war breaks out, however, Control Room follows several staff members to US Central Command. Simultaneously, we watch the Al Jazeera command room staff coordinate their coverage from correspondents in Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra (they were not embedded with the US military). The relationship between the network and the military staff is contentious and wary. The Arab reporters are obviously critical of US actions, while the military's relationship with all the media makes their intentions clear: ranging somewhere between controlled information to outright propaganda.
This could be reduced to a shouting match and press clippings, like a culturally-charged Odd Couple. Indeed, the first meeting of reporter Hassan Ibrahim and Marine Corps Lt. Josh Rushing indicates it might be headed in that direction, as they try to sort out where the bias lies and whether America's aggression is justified. Fortunately, the documentary quickly moves past the justification for war and instead concentrates on the difficult work of warzone reporting.
Al Jazeera draws a lot of flack from the US government for its stance on war reporting--showing the gory details as well as the policy side. Clips of Donald Rumsfeld accusing the network of lies and manipulation rank high on the irony meter, while the producers argue that they are trying to portray war's "human cost." One of the most compelling figures is Rushing, who begins the movie as a PR flack but quickly begins to empathize with Al Jazeera's choices. After the video of captured and executed Marines is shown on Arab television, Rushing is first upset, but then compares those casualties with the Iraqi casualties that were typically broadcast. He's disturbed by his own lack of empathy for "the enemy," and it's a painful moment for soldier and viewer alike.
It's startling to see the war's narrative documented so clearly as the Pentagon feeds it to the waiting reporters at CentCom--and it's not just Al Jazeera's reporters that are upset by it. CNN correspondent Tom Mintier is astonished by the audacity of the military at spinning the Jessica Lynch story as opposed to the storming of Baghdad. Although the documentary doesn't hammer the point home, it's disturbing to remember just how prominent that story was, even over the skepticism of the reporters themselves. Dissatisfaction between the media and the military is palpable--however, you can't help but feel frustrated as the US journalists refuse to challenge the government story. Al Jazeera has its own problems finding good coverage, as producer Samir Khader is shown rejecting crackpots that his own well-meaning but ethically-inexperienced staff has cued up for interviews. Although Al Jazeera is extremely skeptical of the US war narrative (like the demolition of Saddam's statue), they struggle to find a balance between that skepticism and good reporting.
The real emotional center of the movie is the bombing of several Arab news correspondents who were stationed in Baghdad. The US military claims it was accidental, but the network staff are clearly shaken and not convinced. The insinuations of Donald Rumsfeld begin to seem more sinister, and the excuses offered are shaky. Khader is most visibly affected, as he considers the station's options. "We're just a little tiny network," he says. What can they do?
In the end, Control Room should give both journalists and ordinary citizens a lot to think about. Unlike Outfoxed or Farenheit 9/11, it doesn't shout a message, but it is no less incendiary. Its focus on an Arab news network also contains real implications for US networks, where they are getting their stories, and what we should believe. It's a bleak picture of war and freedom of press that I can highly recommend. Control Room makes me wonder about the bubble that our media have created for us, and hope that eventually it will be popped.