Live from Baghdad Movie Review

Nothing fascinates the media as much as itself. So it should come as no surprise that one of the best films (so far) about the 1990-91 Gulf War is a drama about the reporters who covered it.

As part of its bid to make 24-hour news an institution, CNN sent producers Robert Wiener (Michael Keaton) and Ingrid Formanek (Helena Bonham Carter) to Baghdad in August 1990 to cover the brutal Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The HBO film Live from Baghdad is the story of how Wiener and CNN overcame adversity to become the only network to continue broadcasting from Baghdad during the U.S. air strikes.

Wiener and his team soon learn that it's hard to get off the plane and immediately get the story. They find plenty of evidence that Saddam Hussein is a repressive dictator and a mass murderer, but they still allow themselves to be manipulated by the Iraqi Information Minister, Naji Sabri al-Hadithi (thoughtfully played by David Suchet). Wiener perseveres, building a relationship of mutual respect with the minister, and he comes to understand the country better.

Live from Baghdad features strong acting, especially Bruce McGill's flamboyant portrayal of Peter Arnett, and very good use of stock footage of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the U.S. bombing of Baghdad. (Surprisingly, though, the filmmakers couldn't find a body double to play Saddam, and resort to trick angles.)

The film is flawed, however. For one thing, it spends too much time praising CNN -- it's just TV, after all. (Full disclosure: HBO and CNN are both divisions of Time Warner.) The romance between Keaton and Carter is believable but a distraction -- the film really should have been about the war, not the reporters. Much of the film is about Wiener's personal growth as he supposedly learns not to be quite such an egomaniac, which is something journalists often have a hard time with... ahem. Unfortunately, since Live from Baghdad was adapted by Wiener from a self-penned autobiography, I'm not convinced that his egomania is completely under control.

And yet the film unavoidably depicts the glibness and self-absorption of the reporters, and in doing so, it gets close to the real story. Early in the film, Wiener and his crew wisecrack about the poor service in Iraq and make last-week-it-was-Kinshasa jokes. But by the time Wiener has learned diplomacy and patience from his dealings with the information minister, he also comes to see the shallowness and cynicism of journalists, including himself. As CNN becomes a mouthpiece for American saber-rattling and Iraqi dissembling, Wiener realizes that what is going on is not debate but merely dueling soundbites, and he observes: "We don't give [the audience] the tools they need to understand the story." How true. We have now fought two wars with Iraq, but we still do not understand who the people of Iraq are, or what they want.

In Live from Baghdad, the information minister candidly informs Wiener that, for Iraq, the war was about national pride -- a truth worth pondering. Pride and egomania led Saddam to invade Kuwait (and before that, Iran, in the bloodiest conflict of the 1980s). And really, what else besides nationalistic pride caused World War II, or the U.S. Civil War, or many of the bloodiest wars in history? And in every case, pride brought ruin and humiliation -- which is why pride is a sin. Wiener doesn't spell all this out in the commentary, but he trusts the viewer to see it. And that's good journalism.


Comments

Live from Baghdad Rating

" Good "

Rating: NR, 2003

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