Control Room and Other New Releases

Control Room

Shows at the Seattle International Film Festival on Wed., June 9, 7 p.m. and Thurs., June 10, 4:45 p.m. at Egyptian; opens June 25 at Varsity Nearly every American who reads or watches the news has heard of Al-Jazeera, but few have actually seen it—unlike the 40 million viewers across the Arab world for whom it is the principal source of TV news. This gap in media exposure and the cultural gap it represents are what make Control Room, Jehane Noujaim's excellent new documentary, so important. Based in Qatar, Al-Jazeera is an eight-year-old television news network whose reporting has rankled Middle Eastern leaders and the Bush administration alike. Arab dictators see the network as a gadfly, since its correspondents actively question prominent regimes; the U.S. president and his top aides routinely demonize Al-Jazeera, calling it "a mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden." Somewhere between these viewpoints is the real Al-Jazeera, a diverse team of journalists dedicated to providing independent coverage of a region where freedom of the press is still a work in progress. Director Noujaim left an MTV production post to make her 2001 documentary debut,, one of the definitive works on the dot-com boom and bust. In Control Room she tackles another set of complex sociopolitical issues, but not the way you might expect. The film barely addresses the West's widespread condemnation of Al-Jazeera; instead, it humanizes the network by focusing on the day-to-day work of its journalists and editors as they cover the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. What we learn is that they grapple with many of the same issues, and aspire to most of the same ideals, as their Western counterparts. The looming question when the film was being made, of course, was how to cover a war as truthfully and fairly as possible. The U.S. military gets a spokesperson in the form of Lt. Josh Rushing, who acts as a point of contact between the American armed forces and international reporters working out of makeshift offices at Central Command (also located in Qatar). Rushing comes off as a dogmatic dolt in early scenes, assuring Al-Jazeera correspondent Hassan Ibrahim that the U.S. invasion is based on Saddam Hussein's "will to use weapons of mass destruction"; he simply repeats the phrase when Ibrahim points out that Saddam has never threatened America explicitly with WMDs. But Rushing turns out to be a sensitive, insightful de facto diplomat; he realizes, for instance, that images of dead Iraqis disturb him far less than photos of U.S. troops killed in action, and the double standard unsettles him greatly. While Room paints the Al-Jazeera staff in a uniformly positive light, Noujaim also comes up with several Americans, including CNN correspondent Tom Mintier, who are in Iraq not to broadcast patriotic propaganda to the folks back home but to take a hard, honest look at the motives of the U.S. occupation. But what does distinguish wartime journalism from propaganda? The question emerged soon after 9/11, during America's attack on Afghanistan, when American officials decried the display of images of injured and dead Afghanis as a threat to U.S. morale. At the time, I saw these gory snapshots for what they were: the uncensored truth. Room posits a similar idea, as when Al-Jazeera senior producer Sameer Khader comments on the network's decision to run images of wounded Iraqi children. "[Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld calls this incitement," he says. "I call it true journalism. The only true journalism in the world." That might be overstating it a bit, but when American forces reach Baghdad, the theatricality of the ensuing celebration—which includes the now-famous toppling of the Saddam statue—makes Al-Jazeera producer Deema Khatib wonder if the troops didn't pay Iraqis who "danced in the streets" to do so for PR purposes. She amusedly notes that one man who helps bring down the monument waves an antiquated Iraqi flag dating from 1991. Has this Saddam-hating Iraqi been carrying the flag around for 12 years, just waiting for the chance to whip it out on international TV? However deep your own cynicism might run, what makes Room essential viewing is Noujaim's tireless, fiercely intelligent analysis of the conflict and its portrayal in the media. The half-dozen subjects she chose for the film prove her understanding of the situation's complexity; these aren't cogs in some global machine but independent thinkers and doers whose views, like the conflict that surrounds them, may shift on a daily basis. When the director has Khader in her crosshairs, he confesses that if things don't work out at Al-Jazeera, he might be just as happy working at Fox News, the notoriously right-wing American news network. Why the apparent hypocrisy from a man who helps direct the most powerful news-gathering organization in the Arab world? He has two children in high school, he says. Once they graduate, he's sending them to college in the U.S., and he wouldn't mind following them there. In wartime, Room suggests, the only real enemy is untruth; the passionate journalist, in turn, becomes the most humane of heroes. NEAL SCHINDLER Garfield: the Movie

Opens Fri., June 11, at Metro Cinemas The thought of enduring an hour and a half of a giant, computer-generated orange cat, Jennifer Love Hewitt pretending to be a veterinarian, and a plot that centers on a collar for electrocuting dogs may sound unbearable . . . and it pretty much is. But I guess you can't really expect a complicated plotline and in-depth, complex characters from what has for 25 years been a two-dimensional comic strip in newspapers across America. The film's uncomplicated story is launched by Garfield's jealousy at the arrival of Odie (Jon's new dog), which causes Garfield to incite a chain of events that leads to Odie running away. The pup is captured by the evil Happy Chapman, who wants to exploit his dancing talents and control him with his "collar of voltage," all leading to the grand climax in which Garfield is forced to save the day. Early on, you'll realize that this plot is not critically important. Instead, focus on what remains of the beloved comic strip and cling to that, appreciating the filmmakers' attempt to build a "comic-book-like environment" for the story. They've done a nice job. The setting is primarily Garfield's neighborhood, where the houses are close to identical and brightly painted in solid colors against a flat, textureless background—a look that's refreshing in a world where insane special effects usually dominate kid movies. Unfortunately, the characters in this film aren't much to purr about— except for Bill Murray, who contributes Garfield's voice and manages the perfect combination of sarcasm, wit, and disdain in every syllable. And don't worry, young kids will definitely enjoy this film, especially considering that they're too young to remember Hewitt's Party of Five days and therefore unable to realize how far she's fallen. HEATHER LOGUE Robot Stories

Opens Fri., June 11, at Varsity Technology and humanity grind a few gears in Greg Pak's uneven short-film anthology. In one episode, career-oriented yuppies adopt a robot baby to test their parenting skills—which, no surprise, are lacking. In addition to trying to have the squealing mechanical capsule debugged, their marriage could use some troubleshooting, too. Director Pak plays a robot office temp in another installment. His co-workers naturally resent and tease the endlessly polite and efficient cubicle warrior; yet like HAL in 2001, the machine begins to develop some feelings— amorous ones, in this case. In a third segment, an aging artist muses over his mortality in a not very interesting fashion. The reason for seeing these other three chapters is the fourth, "The Robot Fixer," an excellent examination of a stoic mother's grief while her adult son lies in a coma. Having seemingly been shut out of his sad, isolated life, the mother (Wai Ching Ho) discovers her boy's cache of robot toys and Transformers from childhood, then goes about repairing them as a kind of belated gesture of love and connection. Ho, a TV veteran from Law & Order and elsewhere, resists every opportunity to overplay, making her character's obsessive determination—rather like a robot's, in fact—all the more affecting for her lack of tears. (NR) BRIAN MILLER

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