Al Jazeera, the satellite-TV news service for 40 million Arabic-language viewers, is headquartered in modest offices in the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar. But in Control Room, you quickly realize that the room in question isn't only Al Jazeera's nerve center, with its wall of video monitors glowing with wartime images from Baghdad and Mosul. Rather, it's the press-conference facility at Centcom, the U.S. military-run compound, that most interests filmmaker Jehane Noujaim.
There, journalists of many nations gather words that drop from the lips of Americans about President Bush's March 2003 invasion of Iraq, which as this documentary begins is imminent. Once the bombs start falling, spokespersons tell a tale of liberation to reporters, including a lonely-looking Al Jazeera correspondent. Meanwhile, back at the station, Al Jazeera senior producer Samir Khader wearily notes, "You cannot wage a war without propaganda."
Noujaim's intelligent, tersely potent film focuses on a handful of players, including Samir, Al Jazeera commentator Hassan Ibrahim, and Lt. Josh Rushing, a buzz-cut, earnest-looking American in camo who rubs his fingers nervously when the rotund, jovially sardonic Hassan asks him face-to-face when, exactly, Saddam threatened the U.S. with WMD. (Rushing replies it's a matter of Saddam's "will" to use the weapons.)
Control Room probes journalistic objectivity, as Al Jazeera staffers confront issues of fairness and perspective. But Noujaim, the Arab-American who co-directed Startup.com, suggests cultural literacy is even more important, depicting American journalists who chuckle paternally at triumphal images (American tanks rolling into a Baghdad square) but literally have no idea what they're actually looking at, or what it might mean to anyone who's not singing "We Are the Champions."
Control takes many forms. After an MSNBC reporter boasts how American free-speech traditions give it an edge over the Arab world's journalistic tyros, Noujaim cuts to the Centcom press conference where reporters are permitted a glimpse of the infamous "most wanted" deck of cards, then denied access to it; that's followed by a sequence on the trumpeting of the Jessica Lynch rescue. Propaganda is complemented by brute force: the same-day U.S. bombing of three separate Baghdad sites (just by sheer unlucky coincidence) housing Arab journalists, including an Al Jazeera correspondent killed in the attack.
Like a minority to a majority culture, invaded peoples always understand their invaders better than they themselves are understood. But it's the winners, as Samir reminds us, who write history. Chilling then, that Noujaim lobs us three clips of Donald Rumsfeld claiming some variation of: "We're dealing with people who are perfectly willing to lie to advance their case to the world." He's berating Al Jazeera, by the way -- not his co-workers. In Arabic and English, with subtitles.