Film

It Only Looks Like Truth If You Believe It 'Control Room' Reminds Us

As we encounter so many broken promises, dangerous corruptions, and increasing assaults on journalism, Control Room's arguments about and insights into war and media only seem more acute, and tragically, lasting.

Control Room
Jehane Noujaim

Lionsgate

18 Jun 2004

"The sole purpose of our actions was to sell the American people on the case for war with Iraq. Polls show that we did. Mr. Trump and his team are trying to do it again. If we're not careful, they'll succeed." -- Lawrence Wilkerson, New York Times, 5 February, 2018

"You cannot wage a war without news, without media, without propaganda." -- Samir Khader, senior producer, Al-Jazeera, 2004

Speaking to reporters at CentCom in Qatar, 700 miles outside Baghdad just after the war in Iraq started, the US Press Officer, Lieutenant Josh Rushing, lays out the parameters for questions. He's not looking to get into details, where missiles are landing or how many Iraqis are in dead or wounded; he's looking for a bigger picture. To this end, he announces he's ready to discuss the US desire to "bring freedom, that's what we're really here to do."

In this brief scene, Control Room lays out the difficult relationship between government officials and journalists. Jehane Noujaim's 2004 documentary focuses on efforts to report on the war in Iraq, positing Al-Jazeera as an alternative organization to US news agencies whose access to information is limited, in part by system of embedded journalism during the war. In the 15 years since the film's release, of course, the problems of gaining access and deciphering truths have only escalated. The rise of social media, alternative facts, and charges of "fake news" -- not to mention deliberate obfuscation by authorities -- all make it that much harder to report news.

Rather than attempt to discover or even postulate a broad truth, Control Room -- which is screening today at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village, New York, as part of the Stranger Than Fiction documentary series, followed by a Q&A with Josh Rushing and producer Rosadel Varela -- takes as its object a small piece of the news making and news reporting apparatus, which is to say, Al-Jazeera, the Arab television network that has been accused repeatedly by US officials of being "pro-Saddam" (or, as Donald Rumsfeld calls it, "the mouthpiece of Osama Bin Laden").

Such allegations, the film suggests, are at once banal and inevitable: they are part of the American war effort, which, as Al-Jazeera senior producer Samir Khader observes, entails controlling media and producing propaganda. His remark does not demand or assume a specific agent in this process: all war is always supported by propaganda. It only looks like truth if you believe it.

This generalization is the film's less neatly consistent subject matter, aside from Al-Jazeera during the war against Iraq. Objectivity in news and documentary is impossible. This understanding leads to repeatedly articulated frustrations for interviewees like Lt. Rushing and Sudanese-born Al-Jazeera correspondent Hassan Ibrahim, who form the film's emotional bookends. Each is worried by what he sees in different ways, and each provides the film with an alternative perspective on what seems simple: the horrors of war.

Noujaim structures her film so that events appear to unfold before the camera's objective eye. President George W. Bush appears on US television to declare the inevitability of his intentions (if Saddam Hussein and his sons do not fulfill their "responsibility" to leave Iraq, "We will rise to ours... The war is directed against the lawless men who lead your nation, not you"), Iraqis and especially Iraqi journalists respond to the ultimatum ("Mr. Bush is talking about peace. What peace?"), and the shock and awe campaign begins.

With footage and interviews shot at CentCom and at the Al-Jazeera offices in Baghdad, Control Room tracks how "control" of imagery and ideas is crafted and lost, by the US military as much as by anyone who might try to oppose that awfully imposing, well-funded, and oddly unified view. That's not to say that spokespeople for both/all sides don't expose narrative inconsistencies. Ibrahim pronounces his frustration over Arab anti-Semitism: "Everything in the Middle East is an Israeli conspiracy," he sighs. Noting that Arabs tend to see images of Israeli attacks on Palestinians as of a piece with US attacks on Iraqis (wounded children, burned out buildings, exploded cars), he asserts that "People are against this war, and people matter."

Rushing, for his part, is enthusiastic that some reporters appear to like him. "If I were a woman," says one Arab reporter, "I would marry you." Yet he confesses that he's troubled by his own reactions to pictures of atrocities: where he's unmoved by the sight of Iraqi casualties, he's horrified by the bodies of US troops. "That upset me profoundly," he says. "It makes me hate war, but it doesn't make me believe that we're in a world that can live without war yet."

Here Rushing cites the footage on Al-Jazeera that incited so much US outrage, long before the abuses at Abu Ghraib Prison were revealed. Declaring the Iraqis' actions and moreover, the network's decision to air the images, as breaches of the Geneva Convention, Rumsfeld and company were quick to decry to the immorality and inhumanity of the "enemy" ("We expect those people to be treated humanely, just like we're treating the people that we have captured humanely"). At around the same time, the film points out, 40 million Arab viewers (the number who have access to Al-Jazeera) were also seeing images of US troops forcing women to the ground, searching citizens' homes for "terrorists" and "insurgents"; this footage includes the soldiers' shouting at detainees ("Face the fucking front!"), in a language that many Iraqi citizens don't understand.

When Iraqis begin to burn US and UK flags in protest ("Welcome to my house, Mr. Bush! Do you have a warrant?"), rather than welcoming collation forces with cheers and flowers, Rumsfeld appears on television again. "We know that Al-Jazeera has a pattern of playing propaganda over and over again," he says. "We're dealing with people that are perfectly willing to lie to the world to attempt to further their cause, to the extent that people... are caught lying and they lose their credibility. One would think that it wouldn't take ultimately very long for that to happen, dealing with people like this."

One would think. Control Room includes as well some images that will be familiar to US viewers of CNN and Fox News, recontextualized. Jessica Lynch's rescue, as many consumers around the world have already come to believe, was a diversion -- for what purpose is not entirely clear, whether to detract from slowdowns in the war or, as Rushing explains, from the coalition forces' plans at that moment (to keep the forward movement of troops off TV, make up a story about a brave woman's rescue).

Or again, the infamous deck of playing cards (the "Most Wanted" Iraqis) is introduced at a CentCom briefing as if it will answer all sorts of questions. When reporters endeavor to get copies of the deck, or even to see who's in it, they are told that there's only one deck, and it can't be spared. Reporters cannot see it, only glimpse it in passing. The metaphor is striking, if clumsy. The "Most Wanted" story looks poorly planned, even as propaganda. CNN's Tom Mintier is among those journalists most outraged by the superficial spectacle.

But while Control Room is adept at revealing such nearly comic ineptitudes of the US military news machinery, it closes with the tragic story that drove Al-Jazeera out of Baghdad, the missile launched at the network's Baghdad offices, that killed a correspondent. As his fellow journalists worry about his family's pain and their own safety, they also call for an honest investigation into the attack, an investigation that reveals how such a thing could happen (the stories conflict, some suggesting that US troops thought they were being fired on by someone in the building). That no such information is forthcoming only underlines the adage that truth is war's first casualty, as truth and war are inscribed by media.

Its own status as media isn't lost on Control Room, as it considers its own sources and stories. So too did one of its subjects, Lt. Rushing. On leaving the Marines after 14 years of service in 2004, Josh Rushing became an award-winning journalist and photographer, first for Al-Jazeera (he helped to start Al-Jazeera English in 2005) and later, for Huffington Post and his own online site, JoshRushing.com.

For the rest of us, revisiting Control Room as we encounter so many broken promises, dangerous corruptions, and increasing assaults on journalism, its argument and insights only seem more acute, and tragically, lasting. The threats revealed then have become today's daily chaos.

Music
Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Music

Coronavirus Tunes: A Brief Playlist for Our Times of Self-Isolation

As coronavirus spreads throughout the world and many of us hunker down with online media, we offer eight songs that share our feeling of seclusion.

Music

PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists

If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by the quality readership of PopMatters.

Music

Jennah Barry Offers Up a Warm, Sublime Collection of Memorable Tunes on 'Holiday'

Canadian indie folkster Jennah Barry returns with her long-awaited sophomore album, Holiday, which takes on a looser, more relaxed approach.

Music

Maria McKee Puts Down Her Electric Guitar and Picks up Dante on 'La Vita Nuova'

"Show Me Heaven" was another country. Maria McKee has moved to England, immersed herself in the Classics and turned away from the 21st century.

Music

Fotocrime's '80s-Inspired Rock Is Often Half-Baked

Fotocrime's South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time.

Books
Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Books

John Pham's ​J​&K​​ - It's a Matter of Perspective

In J&K, John Pham explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle.

Film
Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of Political Dividing and Conquering in America

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Film

The Road to Murder in Love and War: Three Films from Claude Chabrol

The character's in Claude Chabrol's The Third Lover, Line of Demarcation, and The Champagne Murders are obsessively doubled and mirrored, reflecting and refracting their hunger for sex, love, money, and power.

Film

'Memento' Is the Movie of the Attention Economy

We are afraid of time, and so like Leonard in Memento, we kill it, compulsively and indiscriminately.

Film

What Lurks Beneath: 'Jaws' and Political Leadership in the Time of COVID-19

Boris Johnson admires the Mayor in Spielberg's Jaws. Remember him? He was the guy who wouldn't close the beaches -- and sacrifice that revenue source -- during a public crisis.

Recent
Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of Political Dividing and Conquering in America

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Music

The Killers - "Caution" (Singles Going Steady)

The Killers go for the big hooks and singable anthems on "Caution", but opinion is sharply divided about the song's merits amongst our Singles Going Steady panel.

Music

Lilly Hiatt - "Some Kind of Drug" (Singles Going Steady)

Lilly Hiatt sings about a different kind of love on "Some Kind of Drug". Hers is for a city and the impact gentrification has had its soul.

Music

There's Never Enough Time for Folk Music's James Elkington

The sometimes Wilco and Richard Thompson sideman, in-demand producer, and songwriter, James Elkington, muses on why it's taking longer than he expects to achieve more in a week than most of us get done in a lifetime.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Music

Salsa Band LPT Hints at the Genre's Future

LPT's debut album, Sin Parar, hits all the right notes for a contemporary salsa album.

Music

Jennah Barry Offers Up a Warm, Sublime Collection of Memorable Tunes on 'Holiday'

Canadian indie folkster Jennah Barry returns with her long-awaited sophomore album, Holiday, which takes on a looser, more relaxed approach.

Music

Fotocrime's '80s-Inspired Rock Is Often Half-Baked

Fotocrime's South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time.

Music

Maria McKee Puts Down Her Electric Guitar and Picks up Dante on 'La Vita Nuova'

"Show Me Heaven" was another country. Maria McKee has moved to England, immersed herself in the Classics and turned away from the 21st century.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Music

Weeks Island's 'Droste' Is a New High Water Mark in Ambient Steel (EP stream) (premiere)

Lost Bayou Ramblers' Jonny Campos turns up as Weeks Island with Brian Eno/Cluster-inspired music straight from the bayou. Hear Droste in full ahead of its release on Friday.

Music

Ireland's Junk Drawer Share New Krautrock Meets Post-Punk Song, "Temporary Day" (premiere)

Junk Drawer's "Temporary Day" is a simple yet compelling video for a gripping song that shows why the band have earned such acclaim in their native Ireland.

Books

John Pham's ​J​&K​​ - It's a Matter of Perspective

In J&K, John Pham explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle.

Music

Miranda Lambert - "Bluebird" (Singles Going Steady)

Miranda Lambert sings her blues the way an artist paints with them on her latest single, "Bluebird".

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.