CONTROL ROOM *** 1/2
DIRECTOR: Jehane Noujaim
RUNNING TIME: 83 minutes
THE LOWDOWN: A revealing and fascinating look at coverage of the Iraq war on Arab news network Al-Jazeera.
Samir Khader, a senior producer for Al-Jazeera, offered a newsman's summation of the final days of the Iraq war.
"It was a show -- a media show," Khader said in "Control Room," Jehane Noujaim's remarkably insightful documentary.
Noujaim, 30, grew up in Egypt and was educated at Harvard. She understands the media game from both sides. Most of the filming was in Qatar, home of the media center set up by the U.S. military for the duration of the war's combat operations.
One of the most intriguing parts of this documentary is watching the interaction between the Arab reporters and a Marine press officer named Josh Rushing.
"He's the hero of the film for me," Noujaim said in a telephone interview. "When I first met Josh, I was trying to figure him out. You wonder if this guy is a super spinner, because he totally got me hooked. He's a charismatic, handsome guy, who is thoughtful and really seems to want to understand the Arab side."
Al-Jazeera, often criticized in this country, comes across like an Arab version of Fox News: passionate and opinionated but also determined at great risk to report the news as thoroughly as possible.
"It benefits Al-Jazeera to play to Arab nationalism, because that's their audience," Rushing said, "just like Fox plays to American patriotism."
Image was always in the forefront of the American military press campaign, sometimes at the expense of news. On the day U.S. forces entered Baghdad, the military was pushing the story of the Jessica Lynch rescue. No U.S. official would talk about the troops on the ground.
It was, "an effort to manage news in an unmanageble situation," said Tom Mintier of CNN. "(U.S. press officers) buried the lead, and they are very good at it."
The most poignant moment in the documentary comes when U.S. forces fire on an Al-Jazeera office at a Baghdad hotel, killing a reporter. The Al-Jazeera newsroom is overwhelmed with grief, yet reporters and producers go back to work on war coverage.
Noujaim captures the emotions and professionalism of journalists at war.
"Al-Jazeera reported in a similar way as American reporters but from a different perspective," Noujaim said. "They felt like American reporters must have felt in a New York City newsroom after the attacks of 9/1 1. It's a lot more emotional when it happens in your own country."
Regardless of geography, there is a common ground for all journalists: to keep gathering facts and fighting for truth. Even in a stage-managed war.
"This whole war was like an American movie," Khader says. "You know the end, but you still watch."
That's what television news is all about.