Jehane Noujaim has a remarkable gift for being in the right place at the right time. Noujaim's 2001 directorial debut Startup.com (co-directed by Chris Hegedus) memorably explored the irrational exuberance of the dot-com era through the tragicomic rise and fall of two enterprising cyber-dreamers. With Control Room, Noujaim has found a story that epitomizes the treacherous terrain of the troubled new millennium: controversial Arab news channel Al-Jazeera, which has been vilified by the Bush Administration as a mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and other noted evildoers.
Employing the same cinéma vérité starkness she used in Startup.com, Noujaim documents the news channel as it reports on the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Al-Jazeera's coverage shows palpable anger and outrage at Iraq's ostensible "liberators" even before a U.S. missile kills one of its correspondents. The network purports to provide truth, but instead dishes out a propagandistic onslaught of heart-wrenching, stomach-turning footage of butchered civilian casualties, sobbing women and children, and indignant Iraqis cursing America. On the other end of the political spectrum, reporters grill U.S. spokespeople who offer a similarly unambiguous, black-and-white take on the war that's as mindlessly pro-American as Al-Jazeera's coverage is stridently anti-American.
An air of bitter historical irony hangs heavy over much of the film, especially over the footage of Bush discussing how well Iraqi POWs will be treated, and of Donald Rumsfeld accusing Al-Jazeera of lying to advance its agenda—just as critics claim the Bush Administration did by overstating the risk posed by Hussein and his elusive weapons of mass destruction.
Nearly everyone in Control Room is fueled by ideology, which is why the film benefits tremendously from the presence of complicated people like press officer Lt. Josh Rushing. At first, Rushing appears to be yet another ideologue pushing a steady diet of rainbows, sunshine, and American flags, but he ends up emerging as a thoughtful and reasonable figure. The messy, brutal realties of warfare seem bitterly at odds with the lofty, simplistic rhetoric of Bush and his surrogates, but Al-Jazeera's knee-jerk anti-Americanism is reductive, as well.
Providing a frightening but much-needed sense of how the Arab world perceives the U.S., Control Room invites audiences to identify with both the jittery, sardonic, Westernized Al-Jazeera newshounds and with Americans like Rushing, who has the unenviable task of justifying American actions to reporters with ample reason to be cynical about his country's motives. Noujaim's remarkable and timely film accomplishes something Fox News and Al-Jazeera seem wholly incapable of: presenting the facts, then letting the audience make up its own mind about their meaning.