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Control Room (documentary)

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When the war in Iraq began, President Bush referred to Al Jazeera as “the mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden.” Donald Rumsfeld frequently called the Qatar-based news channel, the CNN of the Middle East, “anti-U.S. propaganda”; Iraq’s information minister called it anti-Iraq propaganda. “Control Room” takes us behind the scenes at this much-maligned — but much-watched — satellite news network before and during the war, and the result is fascinating and revelatory.

“This word ‘objectivity’ is almost a mirage,” says an Al Jazeera reporter, and of course she’s right. Al Jazeera, the most controversial and most popular news channel in the Arab world, was about as impartial in regard to the U.S. invasion of Iraq as Fox News was (though in the opposite direction, obviously). And it is interesting — particularly if you are one of the Americans not in favor of the war — to see the perspective of news reporters who are not just visiting the scene, but who grew up there.

Al Jazeera is known to Americans primarily as an anti-America lie factory, because that’s how Rumsfeld and others characterized it. But this film, shot largely at Al Jazeera headquarters just prior to the war and during the early weeks of it, demonstrates that perhaps some of the half-truths were coming from our side, not theirs.

Not that the film is one-sided. We meet Lt. Josh Rushing, a keen, humble military leader who acts as media liaison and who seems to honestly believe in America’s mission and his role in it. We also meet Hassan Ibrahim, a BBC journalist with local ties whose loyalties lie in the truth, wherever it is. He wants America to be right about all this, but he’s skeptical, like a good journalist should be.

The director is Jehane Noujaim, co-director of “Startup.com,” another documentary that captured the zeitgeist of its time and took us beyond the headlines into the news itself. Her skill for selecting timely topics and crafting them into worthy documentaries is impressive.

B+ (1 hr., 24 min.; mostly English, with some Arabic and subtitles; Not Rated, probably R for brief harsh profanity, some rather graphic war images.)