In the first days of the Iraq war, American networks struggled with whether to air video of U.S. soldiers held captive by Saddam's military, video first broadcast by Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite news network. Bush administration officials said the footage violated the Geneva Convention, and in the end, most Americans viewed the images fleetingly, if at all.
That video figures prominently in Control Room, a documentary about the opening events of the war as covered by Al Jazeera. It's easy to see why the networks shied from showing the tape. The images have a scary potency: One terrified American soldier look warily at her interviewers as, trembling, she answers questions; another GI, badly injured, is pulled up roughly by the head as he speaks to the camera.
Disturbing stuff. But also disturbing are other images Al Jazeera aired that American viewers likely missed: a horrifyingly wounded Iraqi child winces on a hospital bed; an anguished Iraqi woman gestures to the rubble of her destroyed home and curses President Bush; corpses of American soldiers lie scattered across a floor. "We wanted to show that any war has human costs," says Al Jazeera producer Samir Khader at one point. Would it have killed us to see these images?
Control Room, by the documentarian Jehane Noujaim, is hardly favorable to American policy or American journalism. But it is remarkably balanced, and where a more ideological filmmaker might edit her interviews to make their subjects look like heroes or buffoons, Noujaim lets nuances emerge.
In it second half, though, the pace of Control Room becomes frantic as Noujaim races episodically through the confusing, ambiguous events that followed the fall of Baghdad, like the looting and the much-heralded toppling of the Saddam statue. Accusations and conspiracy theories fly, but in trying to cover so much, Noujaim asks many more questions than she answers.