Years ago Gahan Wilson, a cartoonist specializing in the macabre, had one that went like this: Two flag-toting parade watchers are at a postwar victory parade to cheer the heroes, but the heroes are all burnt or mutilated. One of the flag-toters turns to the other and says: “Gee, I don’t know. This is kind of depressing. …”
I thought of Wilson’s dark joke while watching the documentary Control Room, an antidote to the sanitization of war and a close look at the way truth is mangled in its service. Despite the manly efforts of the current administration and a seemingly cowed media, there’s no way that an honest look at war can be anything less than “kind of depressing.”
This patchy but compelling documentary begins on the eve of the Iraqi war and ends just after the occupation of Baghdad. The focus is on the Arab news agency Al Jazeera.
According to Bush and co., Al Jazeera is a mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden that is filled with Saddam cheerleaders, an Arab propaganda outlet not to be trusted. In this film, irony abounds, heightened by hindsight, as when Rumsfeld is shown accusing the agency of lying to make their case and even more so when Bush decries the agency’s showing of frightened U.S. soldiers in captivity, saying that he wished the Iraqis would treat prisoners of war with the same decency that we do.
Meanwhile, the documentary shows the workers at Al Jazeera, the journalists, producers and broadcasters, as they are appalled at the unfolding of the war, which they see as another example of reckless U.S aggression. But they’re also determined to cover it by showing all the blood and horror that constitutes “collateral damage.” The war they show isn’t like the one we saw on American TV, the kind of footage that might threaten one’s steely resolve. If this is propaganda, then we handed it to the news service on a platter.
As evidenced in the film, the Al Jazeera folk are a varied and all-too-human bunch, but the most intriguing character is an American, a young lieutenant named Josh Rushing who is the U.S. Central Command press liaison. Rushing first gives the impression of being just another well-taught defender of the American cause, but soon reveals himself to be more idealistic than ideological, a do-gooder ready to fight the evildoers and bring democratic happiness to Iraq but alert to the nuances of the situation.
Rushing displays an incipient empathy when he admits that viewing dead American soldiers has moved him more than viewing dead Iraqis but that it’s also given him some insight into how the Iraqis must feel. And when he compares Al Jazeera to Fox News (even if the comparison is a little unfair to Al Jazeera) it gives hope that someday he may, like Gahan Wilson’s parade watchers, achieve the gift of disillusionment.
In Arabic and English with English subtitles. At the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Road, Bloomfield Hills. Call 248-855-9091. Also at the Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty, Ann Arbor. Call 734-668-TIME.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.