The Road to Baghdad

And the making of CNN

Live From Baghdad, which premieres Saturday, December 7, on HBO at 8 p.m., pits a hyperkinetic American news crew against the languid Orient and tells the story of how, in 1991, a little-known television channel called CNN hit journalistic gold and trounced its more established network rivals by bringing the Gulf War into American living rooms. Since Gulf War II, prosecuted by Bush II, appears to be imminent, this new HBO film is well-timed.

It’s also better than one might expect, though the opening sequence, which shows how producer Robert Wiener (Michael Keaton) persuades the major-domos at CNN to allow him to go to Baghdad to cover Saddam Hussein‘s invasion of Kuwait and the buildup to a possible war with America, isn’t all that promising. What I enjoyed most in the early going was the sudden burst of swirling Arab -- Iraqi? -- pop music just as Wiener‘s plane touches down at Saddam Hussein International Airport. But then I just happen to like Arab pop music. Fortunately, there’s quite a lot of it on the soundtrack, though the filmmakers wisely switch to homegrown rock & roll for a barbecue scene.

As portrayed by Keaton, Wiener is a compendium of foreign-correspondent cliches, minus the alcoholism, and he‘s already three days past his last shave by the time he arrives in Baghdad. With him is his longtime co-producer, Ingrid Formanek (Helena Bonham Carter), a gorgeous, somewhat punky gal with teased hair, dramatic makeup, and a taste for tank tops and lots of silver bracelets. Her job is to make sure Wiener doesn’t get himself into trouble and to act as his conscience, adviser, confessor and drinking companion, as needed. It‘s a terrific performance by Bonham Carter, though it was never entirely clear to me who her character was supposed to be, or even what country she was from. The best I could come up with was that she was playing Helena Bonham Carter playing a television producer covering a foreign war. And she was pretty good at it.

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“Look at this -- straight out of Ali Baba,” says Wiener’s cameraman as the crew drives from the airport through Baghdad. But we never really do get to “look at this,” at least not for long. Though director Mick Jackson (L.A. Story, A Very British Coup) works hard at not caricaturing the Arabs, he doesn‘t demonstrate much interest in the Iraqi people, or even their capital city -- though the latter is probably explained by the fact the film had to be shot in Morocco. But to evince some real curiosity, Jackson would have had to slow down the pace, adapt to the more leisurely rhythms of the Arab world, and this he was unwilling to do. The film has been edited in a fast-cutting style that’s the epitome of contemporary American restlessness, rarely lingering on anything, like a teenager with adrenaline overload. There‘s something curiously unsensual about it, as if the camera were afraid of being seduced by what it records.

At the start, Keaton’s performance is also all-adrenaline, all the time. He seems desperately keen to show how American the aptly named Wiener is, and that‘s really what the first half of the film is about -- not CNN, not the Gulf War, and certainly not Iraq, but about what pure-blooded Yanks the CNN crew members are and will remain, no matter how long they’re exposed to the sleepy-eyed foreign contagion emanating from the cafes and mosques and lethargic government offices. In Keaton‘s case, this is annoying because it feels forced, but when correspondent Richard Roth (Hamish Linklater, in a droll performance) shows up -- his first words to the bemused desk clerk at the Al Rashid hotel are: “Richard Roth, CNN. I’d like a room in which no one has ever smoked a cigarette” -- it becomes genuinely amusing. Having secured his smoke-free quarters, Roth then unpacks an entire suitcase-full of canned tuna and stacks the tins neatly in a sparkling, dust-free closet. “I‘m not very keen on foreign cuisine,” he explains to Wiener. But he is a good reporter.

Three relationships are at the heart of this story. First, there’s Wiener‘s daily communications with Atlanta, where the executives at CNN are anxiously following his progress. Then there’s his loving friendship with Formanek, which involves comfort-hugs and long, soulful glances, but nothing more. Finally, and most convincingly, there‘s his painstakingly developed friendship with Naji-al-Hadithi, Iraq’s minister of information, whose cooperation he desperately needs. It was a stroke of genius to cast David Suchet, best known for playing Hercule Poirot on PBS‘s Mystery, in the role. With his kindly, watchful eyes, and his admiration for the U.S. laced with old-world disdain, Naji becomes a credible representative of, if not Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, then at least something that feels authentically Arab.

The scene leading up to Wiener‘s first meeting with Naji, in which he arrives at the Ministry of Information for an 11 o’clock appointment and is made to wait until the end of the day before he gets to see him, is one of the best in the film. This is where Keaton‘s performance finally won me over. Letting the adrenaline ooze into the afternoon heat, Wiener graciously waits in the corridor, drinking pot after pot of mint tea brought to him by a straight-faced clerk, without uttering a word of complaint about the absurd amount of time he’s being made to wait. At least until the bureaucrats relent and admit him to Naji‘s office. A polite conversation ensues, during which Wiener makes various unexpected requests. “You take liberties, Mr. Wiener,” Naji says. “I’m an American,” Wiener responds neatly. “We‘re liberty people.”

As the relationship between Wiener and Naji proceeds cautiously toward a highly formal but real friendship, the two men comfort themselves by agreeing to pretend that they both want to prevent a war, although Naji is smart enough to know that the reporter in Keaton wants his story, and that story isn’t going to be a diplomatic solution. Their final scene together, touring the devastated Iraqi capital, implicitly expresses this. “We have become friends,” Naji says. Wiener agrees. “And you got your story,” Naji adds. “Not the one I wanted,” Wiener replies, after looking around at the Iraqis digging through the rubble of their homes. “Isn‘t it?” Naji asks skeptically, giving him a long, quizzical stare.

Live From Baghdad celebrates the rise of worldwide, 247 news reporting, and the gutsy journalists who put CNN on the map. We follow the crew as it struggles with antiquated equipment and tricks the Iraqis into allowing them to use a “four-wire” transmitter that will permit them to relay their reports directly to Atlanta -- while shrugging off the sneers of reporters at the major networks, who accuse them of playing footsie with the Iraqi government and dub the station “The Voice of Iraq” after Wiener is conned into filming a segment that amounts to Iraqi propaganda. Since HBO and CNN are both owned by AOL Time Warner, the film’s laudatory tone doesn‘t come as a surprise.

Ultimately, the film is a paean to CNN’s “Baghdad Boys” -- as Peter Arnett, Bernard Shaw, John Holliman, as well as Wiener and the rest of the crew, were dubbed -- who stayed behind in the Iraqi capital after reporters from the major networks had pulled out, and reported on the war in a candle-lit room by sticking a microphone and camera out the window.

The scenes with the exuberant Arnett (Bruce McGill) and the amusingly dopey Shaw (Robert Wisdom) are a lot of fun, particularly once the bombing starts, and they do give a sense of what it would be like to report from a city under siege by the U.S. Air Force.

There‘s a great scene the morning after the first night’s bombing, when Arnett grabs the microphone from Shaw when the latter, exhausted by the night‘s ordeal, starts free-associating embarrassingly on air. Looking out the window at the ruined city, Arnett movingly matches word to image and improvises a perfectly enunciated report: “From our vantage point on the ninth floor of the Al Rashid Hotel, the devastation seems formidable. What were buildings are now shells, like boxes crushed by someone’s giant hands. Smoke is rising everywhere, the streets are full of debris and devoid of a living soul. None of us here, I am sure, will ever forget this night, or what happened here.”

In modest ways, Live From Baghdad makes sure that we don‘t forget either. We got our story, too.

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