This year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences® has declined to nominate Werner Herzog's masterful Grizzly Man in the best documentary category, a move buffs of the documentary snub tradition will recognize and deplore. Grizzly Man joins such nonfiction Havishams as Hoop Dreams, The Thin Blue Line, and Fahrenheit 9/11, films that broke out of the documentary ghetto to achieve critical acclaim, audience enthusiasm, and viewer interest that will undoubtedly last long after their respective years' winners have been forgotten. This is always a minor Oscar scandal, treated as evidence that the Academy just doesn't give documentaries the attention they deserve. But while I can't countenance giving awards to inferior products, I have to admit that in one way Oscar is right: Documentaries really don't deserve as much attention or consideration as fictional narrative movies. And not just because contemporary docs are shot as tv shows and don't really need to be seen in a theater, but because the documentary form can't help being propaganda.
I say this not after having seen a particularly bad doc but after having seen a particularly good one—Jehane Noujaim's 2004 Control Room, the celebrated look at al Jazeera producers during the invasion of Iraq. It's a very good movie, but like Noujaim's previous effort Startup.com, what makes it interesting is not the story but the way reality keeps running away from Noujaim's effort to frame it. As I argued then, Startup.com was a fascinating look at the dotcom boom by somebody who thought the most important thing was whether her Harvard roommate succeeded with his ill-conceived startup company. In one obvious respect, the story turned out differently than planned: Noujaim says in interviews that she was expecting to film a great American success story, but GovWorks ended up going down in flames. But the real fiction was in framing the story this way in the first place: To treat the internet business explosion as another story of two guys and their dream (a very familiar story at the time) is like thinking the most important thing about the California gold rush was whether any particular forty-niner struck it rich.
So it is with Control Room. The dilemma is whether the alternative viewpoint of al Jazeera will actually make a dent in the rush toward war (it doesn't), and the main psychological movement is that of Josh Rushing, the Marine press officer who, according to countless fan testimonials and glowing reviews, becomes progressively less gung ho and more open to the Arab perspective as the film proceeds. This is the way audiences have read the film, and I think it's fair to say this is the way Noujaim, despite some nuance (such as including another DoD flack who remains ramrod-stiff from start to finish) tells the story.
What goes unnoticed is the much more obvious story, of how a group of reasonable, intelligent, educated people gradually come to drink the Kool-Aid of Arab nationalism. Most of the Jazeera personnel here could plausibly be described as Arab liberals, and they're Arab liberals of a type I know very well: the kind who love Americans and the American way so much that they can never, ever, ever find a good word to say about us.
Thus we get endless finely articulated observations about how the stupid, naive American galoots, who think the whole world is a Rambo movie, are completely clueless about everything and unaware of what havoc, destruction, and pain they are perpetually bringing to the people of the world. But really, they're only saying this because they love us. Most reviews have picked out Jazeera producer Samir Khader's comment that he would take a job with Fox News "instantly" as the movie's tell. (See? Bush's cowboy brutality has alienated even this man, a pro-American moderate who wishes he lived in New York!) But I see it as Khader's to-be-sure statement, a quick innoculation before he can get back to telling us how dumb we are for believing this big media fraud.
This is where the movie's real psychological movement comes in, and if you remember Jazeera's wartime coverage it's especially striking. What started out as the best coverage of the war (and in some respects remained so until Jazeera's reporters had to leave Iraq under tremendous pressure), became visibly more hysterical, shrill, and Baghdad-Bobishly pro-Saddam as the invasion unfolded. Control Room shows how that happened from the other end of the camera. I don't want to downplay their reasons for this shift: The climax came when Jazeera reporter Tarek Ayoub was killed in an airstrike that there's little reason to believe was not intentional. And there were enough surprising setbacks for the Americans and moments of resistance by the Iraqis to explain the Jazeera narrative of an invasion turning into a disaster (and as I said at the time, they did a very good job of telling the story that way).
What Control Room shows is how the network ended up pushing a version of the invasion that was even less accurate than the one being pushed by the American military (though probably more accurate than the one on American news networks). First the British can't be in Basra because there hasn't been any footage out of Basra. Then the Americans can't have captured any bridges across the Tigris because there are no bridges across the Tigris. Then they can't be at the Baghdad airport because there's no footage of the airport. Then when there is footage of the airport it can't be real. Finally the statue of Saddam gets pulled down in Fardos Square, but that's got to be just a hoax: Only a bunch of tv-swilling American fatheads could believe that means anything*. The capper comes at the end, when Khader delivers a speech about how expertly the Americans managed the media message. Oh yeah? Then how come American public opinion was hardly better than evenly divided at the time, and has become more antiwar ever since? Why were there millions of protesters in the streets of the major western cities before and during the invasion? Why did the majority of the world's population view the Americans as the bad guys then, and why do they gloat over our setbacks in Iraq now? If that's media mastery I'd hate to see what happens when things really go south.
The DVD of Control Room contains a self-deconstructing extra: Rushing's commentary track, which combines insights, extra information, and blazing glimpses of the obvious to subtly undermine the movie's message (though the scrupulous Rushing seems to like the film and the filmmakers). "I find it interesting that most of these people at Al Jazeera are not Iraqi," he says at one point, "and yet they all feel so much hurt and disappointment that Baghdad has fallen." Describing a much-repeated comment about the subjectivity of all things by Joanne Tucker, former manager of aljazeera.net, Rushing notes "This is an astounding point she's making: that she is making no attempt to be objective." (He also alludes to an episode wherein Tucker fired a reporter, apparently because he had talked to Rushing.) When the movie presents a press-briefing snafu over the Axis of Evil playing cards (You may recall that Brigadier General Vincent K. Brooks announced the issuing of the cards, but failed to provide packs for reporters to examine after the press conference) as a straightforward case of reporters getting stonewalled by the Pentagon, Rushing chimes in: "An interesting commentary on the media is that there were people dying this day, there was a war being fought this day, and the lead story of the day was that these guys didn't get these novelty cards."
Although the movie doesn't invite a counter-reading like the one Rushing partially provides, I suppose it does leave itself open to other interpretations. The trick is that nobody interpreted it in any way other than the way it was intended. Every single person who has recommended Control Room to me, every rave review that I've read, virtually all of the overwhelmingly positive user comments at IMDB (sample comment: "Rumsfeld's 'truth' may come more from the beleaguered Arab network than the carefully controlled coalition") have taken Control Room completely at face value.
And this, after a long detour, gets me back to why I think documentaries are all propaganda. They're not propaganda because Michael Moore is an ideologue, nor because the anti-Michael Moore guy is a counter-ideologue. They're propaganda because they're made for people who take all images literally, the kind of people who brag that they only read non-fiction. The only arguments that ever take place over docs are about how the makers were or were not biased in their presentation of facts, and if any documentary questions the whole nature of the narrative (as Herzog does from time to time with his mockumentaries), nobody knows what to do with it. No wonder Oscar has no regard for documentaries: They're movies for people who don't like movies.
* To be fair, the Jazeera staff had an extra reason to be skeptical of the statue story. Ayoub had been killed the day before, and the network's correspondents had left Iraq, so they had nobody on the ground in Fardos square. The movie subtly but insistently encourages the view that the Americans set it up that way.
Werner Herzog supposedly rescued Joaquin Phoenix from a car wreck the other day, but if you read the story closely it sounds like all he really did was direct Phoenix's post-crash performance.