No story was worth risking your life for…except the story of a lifetime.
In the early 1990s, CNN was the little network that could. Ted Turner, owner of CNN, envisioned a 24 hour news station that would report the news whenever it happened, wherever it happened. All he needed was the right story to prove that it was possible.
For a premise that just screams "Made for TV Movie," Live From Baghdad delivers much more than Saturday night filler in a surprisingly engaging movie.
Facts of the Case
Back in the days before every teenie-bopper had a cell phone, the nightly news came on at 6PM, maybe 7PM depending on the station and time zone. Families would gather around the TV like a Norman Rockwell painting and find out what had happened in the world that day. If they happened to miss the telecast, there was always the evening news at 10, or the morning newspaper tomorrow. Whatever had happened, it could probably wait.
But the world could not. Life was moving faster than the 6 o'clock news, and sometimes 6 o'clock was just too late.
Thus it was when tensions in Iraq and Kuwait boiled over and Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait City as Saddam Hussein's armies made their move. The world was not going to wait for the nightly news to find out what was going on, information was needed now.
Enter veteran CNN producer Robert Wiener (Michael Keaton, Batman) and his long time production partner Ingrid Formanek (Helena Bonham Carter, Fight Club, Hamlet). Together they have to negotiate their way around Iraqi officials, keep one step ahead of the big three networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC), and deliver exclusive content as war with Iraq looms inevitable upon the darkening sky. They have the guts to go where the other networks are fleeing to get out of, but will they have the luck to leave with their own lives?
In light of recent events, this movie seemed to hearken back to a simpler time for me, when watching the nightly news wasn't an exercise of trying to determine what stories weren't being shown to us, and instead knowing that what we were being told was closer to the truth than outright lies, or at best half-truths, with less filters distorting the picture that was beamed into our living rooms. But alas, gone are the days where unmitigated information will be available to the masses without a predetermined message attached to it. Everyone has their side of the story that shouts for importance, and it is easier now than it was then to be taken in and used before you have any idea of what just happened.
Live from Baghdad grapples with ideals such as journalistic integrity, propaganda control and dissemination, and the unending quest for the story. Maybe not the truth, but (to some people's point of view) something better. Everyone is using each other to get what they want: what they want to show, what they want to hide, what they want to happen. Much like The Insider, the truth has consequences and implications that may not be in everyone's best interest to publicize. It is a sad story, and that's the truth.
This is not a movie about U.S. foreign policy, or the plight of those involved. The rape of Kuwait and where the oil fits in is mentioned, but is not the main focus. This isn't Black Hawk Down or even Three Kings. This is CNN.
Michael Keaton and Helena Bonham Carter both put in terrific performances in their respective roles. Good dialogue and well crafted scenes definitely contribute, and together make for very engaging sequences. This must be attributed to director Mick Jackson (Volcano, The Bodyguard, L.A. Story), who while dealing with a subject matter that could be extremely dry and ponderous, instead gives us a fresh, fast-paced view. Murphy Brown this is not.
Most of the characters have real life counterparts, such as Keaton's and Carter's. Other real life notables include Peter Arnett (as Peter McGill, Matchstick Men, Ali, Legally Blonde 2) and Bernard Shaw, both of CNN at the time.
HBO has put together a release that won't be the most amazing thing you've ever seen, but still is a worthy contender for your collection. The color levels remain constant and vivid throughout the film, blacks are black and stay black, reds and greens strong with no distracting color bleed. Very little grain and edge enhancement make the print pretty clean despite the dusty depiction of the surroundings. Having remembered seeming it the first time, and then more recently on CNN again, these images are eerily familiar even if I know they weren't real, this time. The 5.1 sound mix is as good as the video, especially during the bombing of Baghdad.
Extra features are quite sparse, with only two on the disc: cast and crew bios, and a feature length commentary, always a crowd pleaser, by director Mick Jackson. The commentary track is worth listening to, especially to hear about how carefully interwoven real life was with the fictional elements. Jackson does a good job talking to the listener, without pausing every so often to pat himself on the back.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Not everything about this film is factual, but compressing months of actual events into a two hour film is not an easy task. The film does explore the alleged baby-slaying by Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait City, and presents the events as true, whereas in reality those stories were proven before Congress to be false. (In truth we may never know for sure, but that's a separate issue.) This in itself isn't a major plot gripe, because the purpose of the scene is not to extol the accuracy of reporting, but rather to illustrate what happens when the reporters become the story.
In light of current events, this film should be watched by every major network executive. Since the odds of them hearing about it from me are slim, I suggest you watch it and then yell at your TV during the nightly news, not for the usual reasons, but instead to tell Peter Jennings et al to watch the movie again.
CNN and HBO are found not guilty on all charges. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Director Commentary by Mick Jackson
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