The movie "Live From Baghdad" was on one of my HBOs the other night; I came in midstream, as a motley, intrepid band of CNN-ers (played by Michael Keaton and Lili Tayor and an alt-rock-looking Helena Bonham Carter) were deciding whether to stay in Baghdad for the first bombing campaign of the Gulf War.
They did, of course, and got the live feed when no one else did, minting CNN as an upstart major news source. The denouement of "Live From Baghdad" is thrilling, bombs blowing out the window of the Al Rashid Hotel, the Peter Arnett character, in his exhilaration, like Slim Pickens riding shotgun on that bomb in "Dr. Strangelove."
A decade and a half later, CNN Special Investigations Unit aired an hourlong special on Shiite death squads last weekend that wasn't without merit but also employed the cheesy sound effects of a true crime re-enactment.
CNN is no longer Helena Bonham Carter scrappy; like everyone else, it's trying every which way it can to info-tain you. Over on MSNBC, the documentary "War Zone Diary" is airing at 10 p.m. Wednesday night as part of due-diligence week in broadcast news, occasioned by the Iraq War's anniversary. NBC Baghdad veteran Richard Engel asks a soldier about the current "love the troops, hate the war" paradox back home.
"Does that argument work with you guys?" Engel asks.
"No," says the solider, more than a little bitterly. "If you're gonna support us, support us all the way, support the war. If not, just go on with your lives back home and we'll take care of you here."
The soldier's wearing full battle regalia, on some iffy-looking patrol, and Engel's in a flak jacket and helmet. "War Zone Diary" is a bit like a blog but not enough to be truly intimate or deeply revealing. In turning the camera on himself, Engel gives us a glimpse of his digs at the Palestine Hotel (before insurgents blew it up, forcing the NBC bureau to move) and the canned luncheon meat product he hopes not to have to eat; we also learn that his marriage fell apart and how a trusted Iraqi staffer attempted to extort money by staging a bogus kidnapping.
My God, what's a guy gotta endure to get an hour of prime time from his own news division? (See: ABC News' Bob Woodruff.) NBC punted Engel's "War Zone Diary" over to its sister outlet MSNBC, while "Dateline NBC" is this week featuring a hidden-camera investigation of e-mail fraud and a "twisted teen love triangle."
Maybe Engel should have staged a little game of NBC's popular "To Catch a Predator" in Anbar Province. Though the entertainment division did book him tonight on Leno. In a different "Live From Baghdad," Engel might have become a TV star; whatever else his admirable qualities (bravery, perseverance, street smarts), he's a good-looking face in a war zone, with lush, buoyant hair (can I confess to wondering how he keeps it so malleable?) that belies the fact he's living in a dusty, wrecked, post-apocalyptic desert place.
In compressing Engel's four years in Iraq into bite-sized morsels, "War Zone Diary" reminds you how broadcast news, slavish to its own metabolism, packages the war more than covers it. Some of this, certainly, is a logistics issue — journalists in Iraq are part of the battlefield and/or subject to bad-guy kidnappings, preventing freedom of movement, their Iraqi staffers risking their lives in places journalists can't easily tread.
But this week of war-related programming makes it crystal clear: TV news, faced with its own flagging ability to be vital to our lives, has lost whatever authority remained after coverage of "Shock and Awe" and "Mission Accomplished" and "Operation Iraqi Freedom."
It's worrisome that what we are seeing still appears to contain such a disconnect. "I find the war in Iraq much more frightening to watch on television when I'm on leave outside Iraq than I find it when I'm there," New York Times Baghdad bureau chief John Burns said on C-Span last month.
Burns attributed this both to the hyper-focused nature of being in the middle of it all and because war correspondents are by nature adventurous souls. In "War Zone Diary," some of what Engel describes seeing is past our capacity to empathize (i.e. ravenous dogs eating dead bodies), but networks also blow past daily opportunities to bring the war home in other ways.
PBS' "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," for instance, does an "honor roll" of U.S. troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan that essentially amounts to an ongoing personification of what is otherwise presented as a number in a crawl. Occasionally, and on an ongoing basis, "The NewsHour" ends in total silence as the faces, names, ranks and ages of dead service people appear onscreen.
ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" does something similar.
"People realize that when somebody dies in our name, they have earned the right to fiveseconds on public broadcasting with their face and a smallmemorial to them," Lehrertold radio host Don Imus recently.
Not that the networks don't still try to tell us what's happening — sandwiching in four or six or two minutes of reportage on the day's violence that have no time to get at the complexities of a sectarian conflict or atmospheric nuance, the stuff that makes for great war reporting.
Or great documentary. A lot of these, in fact, are making it onto TV. "Iraq in Fragments," nominated this year for an Academy Award and premiering at 7 tonight on Cinemax, is storytelling carved into three parts that mirror the country's geographical and religious divides.
"Iraq in Fragments" is experiential and unmitigated, told in the voices of the subjects themselves. Director James Longley follows 11-year-old Mohammed, a fatherless boy working for an auto mechanic in Baghdad, goes inside the political groundswell of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr's followers, and profiles the relatively pastoral way of life for two Kurdish boys and an elderly farmer in the north.
In "Iraq in Fragments," shots being fired and helicopters buzzing over Baghdad are theambient, troubling sounds of daily life, and Mohammed constantly looks up to see what's overhead.
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