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Live from Baghdad (2002)

Reviewed 2001-12-08
: "It's my walk on the moon." So says CNN producer Robert Weiner when fighting for assignment to Baghdad on the eve of the 1991 Gulf War (hereinafter known as Gulf War I). His boss admits that, while no story is worth your life, this is the story of a lifetime. Thus begins the (somewhat fictionalized) HBO-TV film of Robert Weiner's autobiographical story of the historic coverage of that historic war, the war that put CNN (if not Iraq) on the map, as it were.

Ingrid Formanek (Helena Bonham Carter)
and Robert Weiner (Michael Keaton)
Weighing moral qualms and heavy decisions
Weiner (Michael Keaton) gets to choose his own news team, and at the top of his short list is Ingrid Formanek (Helena Bonham Carter), and the chemistry between them — as close as two people can be without being lovers — is half of what makes this production work. Joining their news production team is TV talent Bernard Shaw, Peter Arnett, and John Holliman (here portrayed by Robert Wisdom, Bruce McGill, and John Carroll Lynch, respectively). The center of the drama is Weiner, played by Keaton as a politically savvy yet conscience-laden journalistic standard-bearer. When the Iraqis block and manipulate him, Weiner works under, around and through them. When he makes a bad call, he owns it and pushes on to make his next call a good one. At his side, as guide and confessor, is Formanek, with Carter pitch-perfect in characterization and American accent.

If I have only one cavil with the story it is the rewriting of history concerning the disinformation campaign that brought the CNN team into Kuwait to learn the truth behind the babies and incubators story. As those who lived through the events will recall, in October 1990 a tearful 15-year-old girl named Nayirah told a Congressional hearing and the world that she saw how Saddam Hussein's soldiers took babies out of their incubators and let them die on the cold floor. The story was a lie, concocted by the PR firm Hill & Knowlton and voiced convincingly by the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador, who hadn't even been in Kuwait at the time! Sadly, this Citizens for a Free Kuwait propaganda was not only believed by the US public at the time (until it was exposed as a fraud), but by not debunking it Live from Baghdad is complicit in the fraud.

The bombing of Baghdad was
reported live only on CNN.
Only one Iraqi character is of any consequence in Live from Baghdad, and Naji Al-Nadithi (David Suchet), the minister of information — and a mysterious radio-like device called a "four-wire" — is key to the success of Weiner's operation. Their sparring is truly instructive to watch, especially since Suchet plays his character with sympathy and believability. It was only 12 years ago that another president named George Bush unleashed bombs on this former ally, an ally to whom the US wittingly sold the building blocks of the weapons of mass destruction that we now demand Iraq relinquish. The release of this film, (on Pearl Harbor Day!) was perhaps meant to anticipate the start of Gulf War II, on the anniversary of Gulf War I, which will be January 16, 2003. While the narrative may seem self-serving to Weiner and CNN, from the human interactions to the convincing recreation of the bombing of Baghdad, Live from Baghdad sends the message that war never ends in victory because it always starts in failure. And it is compelling television.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.