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Documentaries

Review: Control Room (United States, 2004)

By , 20 Mar 15
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Lt. Spin Doctor.

Lt. Spin Doctor.

More than a decade on, Control Room (trailer here) is perhaps more relevant and entertaining than it was upon its release in 2004. Set during the Iraq War’s first few weeks back in March 2003, the documentary chronicles Al Jazeera’s coverage of that war primarily through the eyes of the network’s Qatar-based reporters and administrators. It focus extends beyond Al Jazeera’s internal operations though. The meat of this film is the interplay between Al Jazeera and other actors within its journalistic space—US Central Command’s spin doctors, Western news organizations, Iraqis, and American firepower.

Through those relationships, Control Room paints a multifaceted picture of perspective. There are perspectives from Al Jazeera’s staff on their employer’s role and context. There are others’ perspectives on Al Jazeera, from Donald Rumsfeld accusing the channel of aiding terrorists to MSNBC reporters complimenting its staff. Then there are perspectives on perspective itself—journalistic objectivity, cultural divides, and history being written by the victors.

It is on this final note of history and victory that Control Room chooses to make a thematic stand. A decade after the invasion, this proves to be an extremely wise choice. Recent history’s newly cast shadows validate some of the film’s hauntingly prescient exhortations. When one hears complaints from a reporter that the American invaders have no idea what they are doing and will simply spark region-destabilizing sectarian violence, images of Iraq’s current struggles with ISIS come to mind. Frustrations from Al Jazeera staff over the US Military’s blithe stance towards looting seem like they could’ve been lifted from Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City or the documentary No End in Sight.

In a way, what Rumsfeld might have once denounced as anti-American vitriol has now become accepted reality. There are no WMDS; Iraqis do not love America as a “liberator”. Retrospect allows Control Room to tug at a powerful question: if history is written by the victors, than did America win?

The aftermath of America’s “propaganda war” for Iraq is an intriguing landscape. The young Marine lieutenant Control Room features as CENTCOM’s primary PR rep now works for Al Jazeera’s English service. Al Jazeera’s influence has grown over the past decade—its American portal’s articles regularly feature on sites like reddit, its Arabic broadcasts arguably helped fuel anti-authoritarian protests of the Arab Spring. Polls show that most Americans now think that the War in Iraq was a mistake, reflecting sentiments expressed by many of Control Room‘s subjects.

“You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror”, as George W. Bush declared. Coupled with the power of historical hindsight, Control Room allows us to see into the grayness beyond that black and white worldview. As an exploration of the vicissitudes of truth and perspective, this film deserves, but should never actually receive, a banner saying “Mission Accomplished”.


Control RoomUnited States. Directed by Jehane Noujaim. First released January 2014. Running time 1hr 24min.

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