A front-row seat at war

HBO's "Live From Baghdad" is the story of one of live journalism's finest hours -- and a cautionary tale for an increasingly docile press.


Gary Kamiya
December 8, 2002 2:00AM (UTC)

The timing of the new HBO film "Live From Baghdad" is impeccable. It runs on Dec. 7, the very day that Iraqi officials have said they will turn over documents detailing the weapons of mass destruction they say they don't possess, and a date that could prove to mark the run-up to the second Gulf War. There's something ominously weightless about this coincidence: As Americans move like mannequins on an escalator toward the most talked-about and least imaginable war in our history, HBO's fictional account of a true story that came out of a 12-year-old war feels more real than the future war we've idly marked on our mental calendars like a reminder to buy snacks for the Super Bowl. In this regard, the broadcasting of "Live From Baghdad" may serve a useful function: Perhaps a fiction will help wake up a dreaming nation.

"Live From Baghdad" is hooked on one event: CNN's live broadcast in the wee hours of Jan. 16, 1991, from the ninth floor of Baghdad's Al-Rasheed Hotel, as allied bombs began to fall on Baghdad. It was one of the more memorable moments in the recent history of TV journalism. The voice of correspondent Peter Arnett, describing the flashes of light in the sky and the massive explosions as Baghdad came under attack, is probably as vivid a memory for many Americans as the broadcast of the moon landing or, in earlier times, the radio announcer wailing "The humanity!" as the Hindenberg crashed and burned. The broadcast was a coup for executive producer Robert Wiener (the film's protagonist and author of the book the film is based on), for his field team and for CNN, which was the only news outlet to provide live coverage of the attack. The broadcast was one of those rare events that single-handedly transformed the entire news landscape: It not only made CNN's name, it brought the concept of around-the-clock TV news to center stage, for good and ill.

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Both director Mick Jackson's film and Wiener's 1992 book, then, are essentially inside-journalism tales, variants of the how-I-got-that-story genre jacked up by the killer payoff. Both are first-rate pieces of work. Both offer fascinating behind-the-scenes looks at how television news is made in the field; both show a veteran newsman at the top of his ringmaster-on-speed game; both tell the gripping tale of how Wiener and his team, in the face of Iraqi "minders," rival journalists who derided them as mouthpieces for Saddam, massive logistical problems and, at the end, the threat of imminent death, came up with the biggest story of their lives.

The film is fairly true to the book, but there are some significant and interesting differences. The book is a jolt of journalistic adrenaline -- an 80-mile-an-hour ride in a car full of info-junkies trying to score, punctuated by caustic, funny and profane observations about everything from fellow journalists to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to how the first President Bush misunderstood Arab culture. It's dominated by Wiener's smart, acerbic, no-bullshit and at times manic personality, which gives his story its sass and sizzle. The story itself is a moment-to-moment recounting, down to the last screaming match and shot of $80-a-bottle Stoli, of a few months in his hectic life as an executive producer. Wiener spends very little time brooding over Janet Malcolm-like problems of journalistic ethics. He is too busy having equipment flown in, pleading with Iraqi officials for a Saddam interview, managing his staff, dealing with his superiors, trying to get the word "hostage" past Iraqi censors, running around looking for stories and drinking heavily nightly, preferably at British parties at which numerous men show up wearing bras.

The movie takes a different tack. For obvious reasons -- the saga of whether Wiener is going to get his "four-wire" phone machine flown in does not have two-hour screen staying power -- it cuts out almost all of the the day-to-day logistical issues that dominate the book. More important, the film thematizes questions of journalistic ethics that the book barely touches on. The reasons for this are equally obvious: The book is carried by Wiener's voice, but a film can't capture that, and so a new source of narrative depth is needed. Enter morality, conscience and big ideas.

The big idea that "Live From Baghdad" deals with is the conflict between neutrality and involvement, between accepting that one's role is simply to gather news and believing that one should try to make a difference. Most journalists, pace Malcolm, would like to believe that the two are not mutually exclusive. But there is an element of self-deception and bad faith in that belief, and to its credit the film refuses to ignore that. The question is raised when Wiener, played with live-wire intelligence by Michael Keaton, trying to secure an interview with Saddam Hussein, makes a high-flown speech to the Iraqi minister of information, Naji al-Hadithi.

Wiener tells Hadithi that putting Saddam on CNN will help forestall war: "Think about what's at stake here, Naji! People are going to die. And I'll tell you exactly when they're going to die. They're going to die when the talking stops ... We gotta keep talking until we're old men." It's a noble speech, but the viewer is uncomfortably aware that it's undercut by the fact that while Wiener may be theoretically interested in peace, what he really wants is a big story.

The dissonance hangs unresolved in the air, only deepened by another moral conundrum: After Wiener convinces one of the American hostages seized by Saddam in the run-up to the war to talk, the hostage disappears -- leaving Wiener anguished about his fate and filled with guilt. (A far darker episode is recounted in the book. The Iraqis offered Wiener's team the chance to go to Kuwait, to refute the allegations that Iraqi troops had removed Kuwaiti babies from respirators. The trip became a fiasco and a P.R. debacle for CNN, as the Iraqis refused to allow Wiener's crew to report fully what they saw: CNN was accused of carrying water for Saddam. The film shows this, but does not mention that the Kuwaiti doctor CNN interviewed was, reportedly, later executed.)

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The viewer has almost forgotten about that unresolved question when the film returns to it, at the very end. Wiener and Hadithi are walking through the devastation of Baghdad for the last time. The two acknowledge that they have become friends. Wiener says, "You kept your word and you were fair." Hadithi -- played with exquisite, almost malevolent refinement by David Suchet, who conveys with scarcely perceptible brush strokes the struggle for human decency of a man operating within iron constraints -- replies, "And you got your story." "Not the one I wanted," replies Wiener. To which Hadithi asks the film's final question: "Isn't it?" To which Wiener, and we, can say nothing. It's a singularly graceful way of closing the circle, and opening a question no reporter can honestly answer.

The film's second deviation from the book is even more predictable: Love interest! That writers would pour an industrial-size can of sex on a script would normally hardly be worth commenting on: Movies have always resembled those '50s paperbacks in which the cover of "Moby-Dick" features a busty blonde being menaced by a lunging sperm whale. But this particular discrepancy -- in a movie that, while no documentary, is largely accurate to the book -- is peculiar enough to be worth comment.

The character in question is Ingrid Formanek, Wiener's fellow producer. A striking-looking woman, always in black with silver bracelets up her arms, she is described in the book as having "the spirit of a wild mustang and the soul of a wide-eyed child." In the book, Wiener lavishes praises on Formanek as a brilliant producer; she comes across as an eccentric, formidable, larger-than-life figure, funny, profane and utterly dedicated to her job and her team -- a consummate pro. For Wiener, she's an old comrade-in-arms who covered stories with him all over the world. There's not a word about any hanky-panky. Wiener is married, with two kids; he describes making a poignant phone call to his wife before making the fateful decision to remain in Baghdad as the rest of the press corps flees.

To be sure, covering war from the front lines is not the best place to test one's fidelity. All the male journalists in Iraq are suffering from what Wiener calls Deadly Sperm Backup. His team is working insanely long hours close together under incredible pressure. And he and the delectable and incredibly talented Ingrid seem to get shitfaced on vodka every night. But despite these numerous unmarked open manholes leading to the greased slide of marital perdition, there's no suggestion that Wiener ever even thinks about solving his DSB problem in her bespangled Czech arms. Formanek's stock phrase, when anyone hits on her, is to bellow out, "It ain't war yet!" (After the war starts, she replaces this with the equally world-class demurral, "Not now, I'm busy!") But in the book she never has occasion to use either of these phrases on Wiener.

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In the movie ... well, suffice it to say that not since Pyramus and Thisbe lusted through the wall has this kind of mutual, man-I-suuure-would-like-to reckless eyeballing gone down. The smoldering passion that burns between them apparently forces them to carry out all their conversations at a distance of three inches. Keaton's Wiener wins the Jimmy Carter award for Lusting After Another Woman in His Heart, and Carter seems to spend more time wearing her I'm-smiling-before-I-cry, I'm-ripping-myself-away-from-your-gaze expression than she does doing journalism.

Within the presumably bogus terms of the film (Wiener -- who was one of the scriptwriters -- told the Houston Chronicle that he was unhappy with the way Formanek was presented) the nonconsummated romance works. There's chemistry between Keaton and Carter, cut with mournful intelligence: They both look like they know what the other person is thinking, but know they can't make the final move. The problem is with the character of Formanek: The wistful-woman-in-love bit dominates, shoving the wisecracking, hard-drinking comrade to the side. The two aren't mutually exclusive, of course, but if the film had to have a love story, more Beatrice and Benedict and less Beatrice and Dante would have felt truer, and added the right touch of bitterness to what becomes a slightly syrupy romantic drink. Where are Myrna Loy and William Powell? John Steed and Emma Peel? But that's Hollywood love for you -- why settle for a fully functioning female heart when a dented, or better still a completely broken one, is available? It's a shame, because despite her gorgeous little-doll face, Carter seems capable of playing a woman as fiery and independent as Formanek.

It's impossible to watch a film about Iraq right now and not think about its relation to what is happening in the real world. "Live From Baghdad" is your basic foreign-correspondent adventure story; it certainly doesn't take any political positions. But there is reason to believe that the hawks in the Bush administration might not be so pleased with this film's appearance right now. Almost inadvertently, in certain ways it subtly undercuts the strident, why-didn't-we-think-of-going-to-war-before message Americans have been receiving.

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The film certainly doesn't defend Saddam Hussein. (There's a memorable scene when Wiener is fastening the microphone to Saddam's tie and looks up into those black, menacing eyes -- whereupon he looks down and says, "Nice tie.") It opens with powerful images of Iraqi tanks smashing cars in the streets of Kuwait. And the Iraqi "minders" who "escort" the CNN crew around are presented as more ominous and duplicitous than they are in the book. Nevertheless, things come out in the film that don't sing harmony to the war hymn. For example, several characters make unchallenged statements that the Gulf War was fought for oil, not out of humanitarian concern for the Kuwaitis -- a deflating reminder of the realpolitik calculations behind most wars, including the one that now looms.

The film shows Iraqis, in particular Naji al-Hadithi, as complicated and sympathetic people, always a subversive move when war fever is afoot. (There's a short, powerful scene in which a sweet-faced hotel bellboy, with a permanent limp from a wound, tells Wiener he fought against the Iranians for five and a half years. He adds softly, "Now maybe I fight America.") It brings up inconvenient history: Hadithi describes how after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the British carved Kuwait out of land that had been part of Iraq. ("There's a history in this region about which you people know nothing," he says.) And it flirts with the idealistic idea that being open to the other side's point of view can often resolve conflicts short of war. (Wiener's book goes considerably further, arguing that the failure of the first Bush administration to understand the importance of "face" in the Arab world may have caused it to miss an opportunity to allow Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait.)

I don't want to overstate the case. "Live From Baghdad" is not a political movie. It obviously doesn't address the issue of terrorism, the threat posed by Saddam or his weapons of mass destruction. (Those weapons were not an issue for America in 1991: In fact, Iraq had used chemical weapons to slaughter thousands of Iranian civilians just three years earlier, with the tacit blessing of a U.S. administration more fearful of Iran than Iraq.) It isn't likely to change many viewers' minds about whether we should invade Iraq. It's unlikely that it intended to do this, but simply by presenting our forthcoming enemies as human and making war real by showing its devastation, it feels quietly off-message.

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The book is another story. Wiener is a harsh critic of both the current administration's Iraq policy and the intellectual bona fides of the current resident of the White House. In the epilogue to the 2002 paperback reissue of "Live From Baghdad," he writes, "As this book goes to press, Baby Bush, like his father and Clinton before him, has called for the removal of Saddam Hussein -- even if it means the United States will act on its own and defy the wishes of the United Nations, the European Community, the Arab League and anyone who thinks it insane to send 250,000 Americans to fight a war with no logical endgame in sight. But since George W. Bush has as much foreign policy know-how as my pet cat, I suppose Gulf War Round Two is a distinct possibility. Let's face it: Saddam Hussein is a brutal dictator who poses a threat to his own people and ultimately the Middle East, but anyone who would publicly call Ariel Sharon a 'man of peace' (as Bush did) lacks a certain ... well, historical perspective." As CNN's former bureau chief in Jerusalem, Wiener knows whereof he speaks.

For obvious reasons, none of those opinions are found in the film. Nor are Wiener's caustic attacks on the "Fox-izing" of CNN, anchors who wear American flag lapel pins ("I have written to both Lou [Dobbs] and Walter Isaacson, CNN's president, several times about this. To date, I have yet to receive a response"), the heavy-handed censorship imposed by the U.S. during the Gulf War, journalists who got too close to the government during the war, and the general decline of journalism into infotainment. (One would be curious to know what Wiener would say about the fact that HBO and CNN are now both owned by AOL Time Warner.)

But "Live From Baghdad" doesn't have a political agenda. What it has in spades is the classic journalist's worldview -- that combination of cynicism and idealism, the highly developed bullshit meter, the wariness of official pronouncements instantly familiar to anyone who has worked in a newsroom. Those qualities just don't mix with flag-waving pieties.

As we prepare for another war against Iraq, this story of one of live journalism's finest hours should remind us that, as Wiener writes, CNN's moment of glory was an anomaly even back then -- and things are worse now, with the foglike miasma of the "war on terror" choking journalism. Fearless, independent reporting was extremely rare in Gulf War One, as a docile press corps filed off to take official dictation. And if the Pentagon has its way, in the sequel real journalism will be nonexistent. This should concern every journalist -- and every American.

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Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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