Live from Baghdad

Live from Baghdad

–Exchange between Minister of Information Naji Al-Hadithi and CNN Executive Producer Robert Wiener

Early on in HBO’s Live from Baghdad, Producer Ingrid Formaneck (Helena Bonham-Carter) cautions her Executive Producer Robert Wiener (Michael Keaton) “the moment we become the story, it’s over.” Given that Live is a film about CNN’s coverage of the Gulf War, the statement is a provocation.

Back in 1990 CNN had the mighty baritone of James Earl Jones, but it was not yet a global player. In the industry, in fact, it was chided as the “Chickenwire News Network.” Live chronicles the six-month ramp-up to Desert Storm, beginning with Wiener’s conviction that live coverage of the imminent war would put CNN on the map and be his journalistic “walk on the moon.”

With an almost fatalistic staff in place, their holy grail is the “ungettable get”—an interview with Saddam Hussein himself. To this end, Wiener carefully cultivates the Iraqi Minister of Information Naji Al-Hadithi (David Suchet), only to see CBS’s Dan Rather edge him out for face time with Saddam. Still, his patient relationship with Al-Hadithi pays dividends as his crew becomes the first news organization to fly into Kuwait and later, most importantly, as Wiener’s request for a “four-wire” cable is approved. This cable, which allows them to broadcast directly from their suite at the Al-Rasheed hotel to Atlanta, ultimately gives them the edge over all other news bureaus.

But while technology might seem to play deus ex machina in this tale, it is Wiener’s relationship with Al-Hadithi that redeems any vainglorious braying on the part of CNN. As compassionately rendered by David Suchet, Al-Hadithi is a worthy adversary to Wiener and not without considerable charm. The one Iraqi given a speaking role in this version of human events, he asks us to consider that even under the tyranny of Saddam, a citizen may remain fair-minded and even hopeful for peace. Amid the rubble from our Scud missiles, Al-Hadithi assures Wiener: “I will see you when this war is over.”

Wiener’s tango with Al-Hadithi also recalls Michael Mann’s film The Insider, about "60 Minutes" Producer Lowell Bergman’s contentious relationship to his network as he pursues an expose of Big Tobacco. In Live, however, CNN is depicted as hands-off management where Wiener and his cronies are concerned. One wonders if they would have been so supportive, had he been operating within arm’s reach.

Live may be considered as a companion-piece to David O. Russell’s black comedy Three Kings, which begins at the end of the Gulf War. But while Kings is a rebuke of the Bush pere administration for privileging our petro interests over the safety of Iraqi refugees, Live provides us with an insider’s view of the fourth estate without losing sight of the humanity of its subject. While Wiener is a charter subscriber to the CNN mantra, “If we see it, we report it,” he is plagued by the consequences of his actions: “Just keep those cameras rolling. Wait for the bomb to drop.”

What might have been a vanity project underwritten by one member of the AOL Time Warner family on behalf of another, possesses considerable integrity. Robert Wiener’s memoir, adapted by him with an able assist by John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck), vacillates between the rat-a-rat clip of an Aaron Sorkin teleplay and the candor and cocksureness of a Larry Gelbart screed.

Michael Keaton gives his most taut performance since an uncredited turn in Out of Sight and Helena Bonham-Carter has split the difference between her Merchant Ivory days and her desolate Marla in David Fincher’s Fight Club. She may yet give Cate Blanchett a run for her money as our most versatile actress. The luminous cast, which includes the always committed Lili Taylor, Bruce McGill as a dead-on Peter-Arnett, and John Carroll Lynch as stolid John Holliman, provides anchor for its leads.

HBO’s telecast of Live from Baghdad could not be more timely. The film premieres four hours before Sunday, December 7, when the 30-day deadline of U.N. Resolution 1441 will have expired. It is unlikely that Saddam Hussein will comply with the U.N.’s request for a list of his covert weapons programs and with this lapsed obligation, the Pentagon is expected to call up the reserves, 10,000 strong. History seems doomed to repeat itself, as they are to be deployed to Iraq to shed blood anew.

– Jerry Weinstein

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