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Control Room (2004)

Different channels. Different truths.

Directed by:

Jehane Noujaim

Rating: 5/10

Running Time: 84 minutes

UK Certificate: 12a

On DVD

Country: United States

Is it possible for televised news coverage to be completely objective? Probably not – after all, pretty much everything has to be edited. That’s a given. But, as war broke out between the United States and Iraq in 2003, how did the major channels choose which images were newsworthy and which were not? How reliable were their sources of information? And what were the major differences – if any – between the big US networks like Fox, and the Arab world’s most popular news station, Al Jazeera?

These are the questions we’re led to think about in ‘Control Room’, Jehane Noujaim’s self-consciously no-frills documentary. It’s low-key, largely free from graphics, and is presented without as much as a sentence of narration. And why? Well, it could be an effort to escape the inevitable comparisons with the likes of Michael Moore’s gimmicky and self-centred Fahrenheit 9/11. Then again, it could be because Noujaim knows there’s a whopping great irony inherent in what she’s trying to do. After all, you could ask exactly the same questions of her film as you’re expected to of its subject. How did she choose what footage made the final cut? How much of the various interviews with US military types and Al Jazeera heads have been edited down? Does the film have an agenda and, if so, what is it?

It’s an irony (I’d stop well short of calling it a hypocrisy) that’s effectively impossible to escape, and the result is a documentary that feels claustrophobic and incomplete. Whether it’s an accurate assumption or not, I couldn’t help but feel that the film itself, just like the TV channels it places its focus on, wasn’t quite delivering the full picture.

There’s little doubt, though, that there’s some interesting stuff here. Sure, the basic premise – that TV news can never be simply a window on the world – isn’t exactly a big shock to anyone who knows even the first thing about the media. We already know the media mediate things – the clue’s in the name! But many of the interviews and contributions, particularly those of top Al Jazeera producer Samir Khader and US Lieutenant Josh Rushing, are salient, informative, and extremely well articulated.

‘Control Room’ will hold your attention, but it doesn’t offer much more than that. The chosen subject matter puts it in a bit of a no-win situation, and Noujaim’s tactic of trying to hide its flaws isn’t enough to overcome them. She might not like me saying this, but perhaps she should have gone in the other direction – the Moore direction – and simply embraced the fact that this is a film about the media, by the media.

It's Got: Donald Rumsfeld blasting Al Jazeera as “anti-American propaganda.” So it’s probably safe to assume he’s not a subscriber.

It Needs: Some “man on the street” viewpoints. How does the average Iraqi feel about the media’s coverage of the war. Or the average American for that matter?

DVD Extras A trailer reel featuring some other documentary films of note, including ‘Super Size Me’ and ‘Capturing the Friedmans’. What about ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’? Isn’t that a documentary too? DVD Extras Rating: 2/10

Summary

How can you make a carefully-edited documentary about carefully-edited news? With great difficulty, if this attempt is anything to go by.

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