The title is a wartime double entendre that could just as easily denote globalist megalomania as media reach; finding the place where both concepts intersect is the agenda of Control Room, a documentary about the renowned (or notorious, depending on your politics) Al Jazeera network. With tremendous acuity, the movie protests how unfair it is that Al Jazeera a trusted source of news to tens of millions of Arabs around the world has been tagged as pro-terrorist propaganda by the U.S. government, a perception that ultimately put the network's reporters themselves in the line of fire as the "liberation" of Iraq commenced.
Director Jehane Noujaim follows a similar template to the one that made her dot-bust chronicle Startup.com such a rewarding watch: Get as close as possible to active participants who can discuss a vital and unfolding situation with informed passion. The network's producers and reporters don't even try to flummox Noujaim with illusions of professional detachment; instead, they use their time in front of her camera to freely spout educated criticisms of U.S. foreign policy and Arab paranoia. Yet their opinionated rhetoric is more reassuring than the careerist remove exhibited by their counterparts at the U.S. news services, who tend to look like comparative stooges as they jostle for position at Central Command. Who would you want defending your right to know: any given CNN "personality" or Al Jazeera journalist Hassan Ibrahim, a Sudanese intellectual shown chortling bitterly at the easily debunked pro-war spin emanating from monitors tuned to rival outlets? (One delicious factoid relegated to the film's press notes: Ibrahim was once a classmate of Osama Bin Laden. A right-wing Michael Moore could run wild with such information, if only one existed.)
Noujaim is there as Al Jazeera's polite refusal to kowtow to the Rumsfeldian party line makes it a sitting duck for coalition forces. The outrage of targeting "unfriendly" journos with war planes which is exactly how reporter Tariq Ayoub died, in an air assault on the network's Baghdad field office is not lost on anybody involved. Seeing the Al Jazeera staff weeping for its fallen comrade makes for a moving expression of fourth-estate solidarity.
Yet the movie shines most brightly when it's exploring unexpected ambiguities. Al Jazeera senior producer Samir Khader, a chain-smoking deep thinker who expounds tirelessly on the subject of journalistic fairness, inspires dropped jaws when he admits that he'd prefer to move to America and work for Fox. It would, he says, ensure a better quality of life for his family. The most intriguing figure in the film hails from the United States in the first place: He's Lt. John Rushing, the press officer charged with dispensing pro-coalition info-bites at Central Command. At first, Rushing comes off as a typical armed-services mouthpiece, maintaining friendly ties with the press community he serves but holding tenaciously (and understandably) to Washington's side of everything. Gradually, however, he's revealed as a resolutely fair man whose moral rectitude is sorely tested by the bloody realities unfolding around him. In short, he's the great American electorate, slowly waking up to the idea that the values he cherishes may be in direct opposition to the bill of goods he's been sold. The movie doesn't say much about what's happened to him since "major combat operations" ceased, but for a representative view, be near a TV set on Nov. 2 and watch which way he blows.