For many Generation Xers, one of the most enduring images from the early 1990s are ones of bombs falling on Baghdad captured via eerie night vision that rendered the experience through an unsettling monochromatic filter. This footage not only signaled the United States’ invasion of Iraq but it also put CNN on the map. Prior to 1990, they were a struggling 24-hour news network looking for a big story. They didn’t have the resources of the big three networks – ABC, CBS and NBC – but what they did have was plenty of ambition to burn. The HBO film Live from Baghdad (2002) chronicles the small but dedicated team of journalists that risked life and limb to get an exclusive scoop on one of the biggest news stories of the decade.
On August 2, 1990, Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait City and it seemed like the U.S. would retaliate immediately with Baghdad the likely target. Veteran CNN producer Robert Wiener (Michael Keaton) is hungry and looking for a story that will give the network a much-needed boost. He’s a bit of a maverick that had his car stoned on a previous assignment in Jerusalem. He meets with new network president Tom Johnson (Michael Murphy) and lays it all out: “People aren’t going to wait ‘til seven o’clock at night to find out whether we’re at war or not. They’re going to tune into CNN.” Another executive (Clark Gregg) argues that Wiener lacks the finesse for such a volatile situation.
Wiener’s got his work cut out for him – ABC and CBS are already in Baghdad and CNN has to own the story. Soon, he and his team are flying into Iraq: fellow producer Ingrid Formanek (Helena Bonham Carter), correspondent Tom Murphy (Michael Cudlitz), cameraman Mark Biello (Joshua Leonard) and sound technician Judy Parker (Lili Taylor). Director Mick Jackson drops us right into the city for a full-on assault on the senses as we are bombarded with the noises and chaos of the place. The CNN team barely gets their bearings when they arrive at their hotel and see ABC and CBS leaving.
I like how Michael Keaton shows the savvy way Wiener knows how to grease the wheels when he bullshits and bribes his way into five rooms at a swanky hotel where he had no reservations and then has the balls to hire a young woman as their translator right on the spot all thanks to a nice fat bankroll of cash. Keaton handles the scene with the nonchalant, no-nonsense ease of someone who’s done this many times. The actor has held a long-time fascination with journalism, briefly flirting with the notion of pursuing it in college and being avid daily newspaper reader. This is also reflected in some of the acting choices he’s made over the years, playing a newspaper editor in Ron Howard’s The Paper (1994) and a speechwriter who mixes it up with journalists in Speechless (1994), and so it comes no surprise he would be drawn to a role like Wiener in Live from Baghdad.
Jackson does a nice job in these early scenes showing the dynamic of the CNN team while gradually ratcheting up the tension as he drops constant reminders that they are in a hostile environment. They work under trying conditions, soon discovering that they are under constant surveillance and have to work with primitive technological equipment as demonstrated rather amusingly in a scene where Wiener runs frantically from his technicians to CNN HQ on the phone in order to get their news story beamed on the air. Afterwards, the emotionally and physically exhausted Wiener and Formanek share a quiet drink at the hotel bar only to realize that they have to do it all over again the next day. Helena Bonham Carter portrays Formanek as a tough producer who can hold her own with the likes of Wiener but is also supportive, being there for him when an American oil worker they interviewed is reported missing, kidnapped soon after it airs on CNN. She keeps Wiener grounded and reminds him of why they are there.
One of Wiener’s early goals is to get a much-coveted interview with President Saddam Hussein and he uses every ounce of perseverance and tenacity at his disposal to see Naji Al-Hadithi (David Suchet), the Minister of Information. He’s a very intelligent man who sees through Wiener’s charms as they engage in a battle of wills that Keaton and David Suchet expertly pull off. These intellectual sparring sessions crackle with an intensity that sees Keaton externalize Wiener’s emotions while Suchet internalizes and underplays. These two men clearly respect each other with a friendship developing between them, but they are also at odds with one another.
Once Jackson takes us out of Baghdad to show Wiener and his crew covering a story in Kuwait, we get a better idea of the scope and scale of what’s happening. They touch down and see soldiers hauling away ill-gotten luxury items. They travel along a desolate stretch of road and pass burnt out car wrecks and jeeps still smoking with dead bodies littering the landscape. They soon become part of the story instead of reporting it and are even scooped by the BBC, which makes them look foolish.
Live from Baghdad shows clips of some of the most memorable moments leading up to the Persian Gulf War, like Hussein patting the head of a clearly scared little boy, a woman crying and claiming that Iraqi soldiers took babies out of incubators to die, and, of course, CNN’s interview with Hussein. Jackson wisely alleviates the often-unrelenting tension of these people in a country on the verge of war by showing them in brief moments of downtime, which allows them to be reflective and blow off steam. These scenes humanize Wiener and his crew so that we care about what happens to them when things really get hairy.
Live from Baghdad was mostly well-received by critics at the time. In his review for The New York Times, Ron Wertheimer wrote, “the interesting relationship here is between Wiener and Hadithi. Mr. Suchet offers a performance of steely restraint, managing to convey the humanity in a man who must be one tough customer to have reached this vital position.” The Los Angeles Times’ Howard Rosenberg wrote, “Although it tells its narrow story well, in a sense Live from Baghdad buries the lead. HBO’s movie about the heady 1991 success of its AOL Time Warner sister company ends at a point – just after the initial bombing – when the war’s bigger media story was just beginning.” In his review for Entertainment Weekly, Marc Bernardin wrote, “Not only does Live from Baghdad offer a masterful look at professionals trying to keep it together in a nation that’s falling apart, but it also manages a rare feat indeed: conveying the energizing fear that the correspondents, doing what they were born to do, must have felt as Iraq began to explode outside their hotel window.”
As Iraq heads towards the January 15, 1991 deadline that the United Nations gave for them to withdraw from Kuwait or face military action, the CNN brings in veteran reporters Peter Arnett (Bruce McGill), John Holliman (John Carroll Lynch) and Bernard Shaw (Robert Wisdom) to interview Hussein and get word out that the U.S. are going to commence bombing imminently. While the other major networks, and most sane people, prepare to leave, Wiener decides to stay as does much of his crew. It’s not a decision that any of them take lightly and Jackson makes a point of showing them really considering their options.
However, the U.S. has other ideas and before anyone can leave, the bombardment of Baghdad begins and the sky is lit up as those iconic images people of my generation remember so well are recreated. CNN’s coverage during the Persian Gulf War was a game changer and showed that they could compete with the big boys and beat them at their own game. Wiener and his team put their lives on the line to record an important moment in history as it happened.
Tapley, Kristopher. “Michael Keaton’s Love of Journalism: The Paper, Live from Baghdad, Spotlight.” HitFix. January 27, 2015.