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Lost in the desert

The Iraq war and Al Jazeera; plus, Spidey back from the brink in a superb sequel


The setting is a newsroom where everyone has stopped to watch the television as the world's most powerful man speaks. "My fellow citizens: The United Nations Security Council has not lived up to its responsibilities, so we will rise to ours. Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours. Their refusal to do so will result in military conflict, commencing at a time of our choosing." The speaker is George W. Bush in March 2003, and the vision of such a cocksure, minimally informed man making this pronouncement looks even more garishly frightening today than it did 15 long months ago.

But the people watching the broadcast aren't Americans in their living room. They're Al Jazeera journalists in their studio in Qatar. When we watch them watch Bush, we understand why they're stunned and terrified by the power someone wields over them halfway around the world.

This is an early scene in a new film that provides an urgent, if uneven, window into the Middle Eastern perspective on the crisis in that region. This Friday, in a clear bid to ride on the coattails of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, Magnolia Pictures is releasing Jehane Noujaim's Control Room, which won an unprecedented three awards at this year's Full Frame festival.

The timing couldn't be better, nor could the films be more different. Although Fahrenheit 9/11 is nominally a documentary, it's really a sui generis piece of incendiary cinematic propaganda, however much we may embrace its depiction of Bush as a warmongering dolt. Control Room, on the other hand, is an old school, fly on the wall portrait of Al Jazeera, the notorious satellite network that has been accused of being a propaganda organ for Osama bin Laden, Yasir Arafat, Saddam loyalists and assorted medievalist kidnappers and beheaders in the Middle East.

Although we may know intellectually that there are points of view on the Iraq War other than that of Fox News, Control Room shows us how information is disseminated, influenced and controlled by the war's managers--through the eyes of Arab journalists. The film takes place almost entirely inside the U.S. Central Command (CentCom) in Qatar, 20 miles from Al Jazeera's headquarters and 700 miles from Baghdad. Correspondents from around the world are encamped at the media headquarters, each assigned office space and each jostling the others for the scraps of information that the military spokespersons offer. In one amusing scene, journalists are shown in an uproar because they haven't been provided with samples of the famous deck of cards with the 55 most wanted men of the Ba'athist regime.

The Al Jazeera journalists we meet are a serious bunch, and they're virtually alone in broadcasting images that don't serve U.S. interests. Hence, there's some graphic footage in Control Room of maimed children, destroyed homes and U.S. soldiers breaking down doors of private residences and terrorizing the inhabitants. A cosmopolitan and educated lot, sardonic and outraged, the Arab journalists all manage a trick that Bush would deem impossible: They simultaneously oppose Saddam and they oppose the world's sole remaining superpower throwing its weight around their neighborhood. Among their number is Hassan Ibrahim, a garrulous and plump dandy who is Sudanese by birth, a onetime classmate of Osama bin Laden and married to a Hebrew-speaking white woman in Jerusalem. Another is Samir Khader, who smokes incessantly and admits that he'd like to see his children resettle in the United States.

Taken as a group, the Arab journalists seem more like the grizzled scribes of a better, grimier era of American journalism, a time when every medium-sized city had at least two daily papers (and large cities had a dozen), and reporters were called hacks: ink-stained wretches who talked fast, drank and smoked, and got out of bed every morning spoiling for a scoop. Those were the days: Today's American journalists have much better teeth. The most fatuous Yank in Control Room is a blow-dried correspondent from MSNBC who suggests that the Arab journalists are drunk on their newfound press freedom, unlike the sobersided Americans who've learn to report responsibly.

Another important figure in Control Room is an earnest, likable press officer named Lt. Josh Rushing, whom the U.S. Army has assigned to influence news coverage in the Middle East by gently pressing the American case with Arab journalists. Although Rushing stays on-message, in the sophisticated, polyglot environment of the media room he finds himself learning Arabic and bantering easily with the Al Jazeera gang. At one point in the film, he confesses to the camera his dismay over instinctively feeling more horror at the sight of dead Americans than dead Iraqis. "It really makes me hate war," he says. (Rushing has since left the military, but as recently as late May, he was being prevented from giving interviews on behalf of this film.)

Although the film doesn't pretend to offer a definitive assessment of Al Jazeera, many American viewers may find themselves wishing for some discussion of the ethics of broadcasting the recorded messages and atrocious videos of terrorists. Then there's the issue of Al Jazeera's editorial independence from its financial sponsor, Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, emir of Qatar. Of course, we've learned to live with the fact that Fox News is owned by right-wing billionaire Rupert Murdoch. Although Noujaim doesn't address such larger issues, her documentary subjects do make one point very effectively: Objectivity is a myth. There is always a point of view, and as even Lt. Rushing recognizes, Al Jazeera is probably no less truthful, and no more biased, than Fox News.

In the end, it's left to journalist Hassan Ibrahim to offer a way out of the morass that Iraq has become. To a companion who wonders who can oppose the might of the United States, he says: "I have confidence in the American Constitution. I have confidence in the American people."

Apparently the Bushies missed the first Spider-Man movie, with its scene of Cliff Robertson's Uncle Ben telling Peter Parker, "With great power comes great responsibility." In Spider-Man 2, Sam Raimi's knockout follow-up, Peter Parker buckles under the burden, undergoing a profound existential crisis that frequently makes this film as grave as The Last Temptation of Christ. The first Spider-Man was powered by the electric charge oscillating between Tobey Maguire's sweet, nebbish Peter Parker and Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane, the dreamy yet anxious girl next door. In casting that film, Sam Raimi had the good sense to select these odd but appealing and charismatic performers, rather than going for conventionally attractive faces. (George Lucas, on the other hand, went pretty with Hayden Christenson and Natalie Portman, with predictably deadly results.) Indeed, Dunst's endlessly expressive face is a marvel in close-up, and with those mischievous eyes and unruly upper canines, may some day be considered a national treasure.

This time around, Peter is living alone in a squalid apartment, failing at his pizza delivery job and failing at his physics coursework at Columbia University uptown. He also hasn't gotten past first base with M.J., who is now a stage actress of some note, performing as Cecily Cardew in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest--a title that was not chosen arbitrarily, as we soon learn. And M.J., sadly but necessarily, has taken up with a studly and considerate astronaut recently returned from the moon.

Although Peter walked away from M.J. at the end of the first film on an ecstatic, masculine high--unencumbered by the need for a woman's love--he's fallen back to earth in this second film. The pressure of surviving in New York, plus fighting all that crime, plus striking out with M.J., is killing him. As a result of the stress, his web isn't spinning like it used to, and he's in poor shape to confront Alfred Molina's Dr. Octavius when the man's research in nuclear fusion turns him into an eight-limbed horror called Doc Ock.

But there will be no spoilers and no more plot revelations in this review. Let's leave things with an acknowledgement of the film's populist artistry. As in the first film, Spider-Man 2 manages to convey an earthy sense of New York City, even underneath all those special effects and an elevated train in Manhattan, where there hasn't been one since, like, last century.

This new film benefits from the help of acclaimed novelist Michael Chabon (Wonder Boys, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay), who mapped out the story. Although the script itself is by distinguished old-timer Alvin Sargent (Paper Moon, Ordinary People), I'm guessing that the film's structure comes from Chabon's gift for the sweeping arc of a novel, particularly in the way Alfred Molina's villainous Doc Ock essentially disappears during the middle third of the film while Peter Parker endures his crisis of purpose.

Although it's possible that some viewers will grow impatient with the meditative second act, there's no question the emotional and melodramatic power of the climax derives from Peter's wanderings in the wilderness. And some of us may be in tears by then. EndBlock

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