Do you get tired of quality?
HBO and CNN, corporate siblings, have teamed up for this true story of news reporting in Iraq at the time of the Persian Gulf War. CNN producer Robert Wiener is the man responsible, having written of his experiences in Baghdad in his book, and also having contributed to the screenplay. It's great real world story, where being in the right place in the right time made history and brought a much greater level of respect to CNN.
As generally happens, actors are placed in the roles of real people, with at least something of a resemblance for those who would be known by the public. Wiener is played by Michael Keaton, who is joined also by Helena Bonham Carter as fellow producer Ingrid Formaneck. There's a little bit of sexual tension between them, but it's kept nicely at a very low tone, as it really has nothing to do with the story at hand. They have an able crew and rotating staff of reporters. In the months after the invasion of Kuwait, but before the United States invaded, they are nervously on the scene, doing their best to slip real stories past the government.
The government's interests are personified in the movie in the guise of Information Minister Naji Al-Hadithi, played by the incomparable David Suchet. I am continually impressed by this man's talents. I've seen him play Belgian, English, American, Jew, and now Iraqi, and each time being completely believable in the role. Al-Hadithi is a tough figure to crack - English educated, very much following the Iraqi line, but not without his sympathetic elements. The apex of his character arc (a very subtle arc, but worthy) is just a few seconds of measured non-verbal communication - perhaps I'm too much of a Suchet fan already, but I found it quite an exquisite moment.
They build a lot of actual footage into this film. It makes sense - the material is out there, and it serves to anchor the experience for the audience to hear the rhetoric go back and forth between regimes. There's a problem though - it just doesn't match up well. I can forgive a somewhat lower budget film of not having perfect cgi stitching of material. What I take issue with is that the film strangely - quite strangely - falls apart thematically with these sequences. The whole film is about reporting news, and it's those bits of news, that don't quite work! These news bits are not the ones our crew has uncovered, yet they are used as a device to move the plot along. If only a more decisive choice were made - either committing to the news as a framing device all the way through, or just pulling it out for special moments - then maybe it could have worked.
Themes of journalistic integrity and personal responsibility are woven into the story. No conclusions are reached, except possibly that the system will never be perfect, and we can only make the best choices we can. I'd like to have seen some more exploration along those lines, but in this case, the better decision was to stick to how things happened. Dramatic license has its place, but sometimes not indulging in it has greater integrity.
The film goes into just the very first part of the war. Getting the story out under those conditions is rightfully shown as exciting and dangerous. Is that surprising? Not really. Is it well done? It's HBO, so yes, it is. We've got the familiar feeling of quality here, but I'm left incomplete. Part of that may just be the usual "true story" syndrome where real life doesn't fit the form that well - but honestly, this is fairly close. I just want another revision of the script that makes firmer decisions.
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