The premier entertainment cabler celebrates the top news cabler’s shining moment by re-creating the days that led up to the 1991 attack on Saddam Hussein. It’s the story of a producer and how his team becomes the news itself, the cinematic drama of which was apparently difficult to mine as Robert Wiener’s book of his Baghdad days spent nearly a decade in development as a possible bigscreen film. HBO’s “Live From Baghdad” boasts some intriguing characters and solid acting — Helena Bonham Carter is an absolute wonder until the camera falls head over heels for her beautiful features — but there’s a hard-to-peg quality that’s consistently missing.
The situation/job are never made sufficiently visceral, and the telepic has a tone problem, toying early on with a comedic element and making every character a gutter mouth. Michael Keaton’s Wiener starts as a brash, overly ego-fueled producer and ends up as practically a nurturing sort. And aside from the familiar newsmen and the two leads, the characters reek of being composites, there to push along a story or bring out a side previously not seen of another character. By diffusing the story — is it about love? politics? journalism? — the final chapter is more an inevitability than a triumph, and the journey to the end isn’t satisfactorily thrilling.
The relative immediacy of these events — viewers will undoubtedly recollect watching the Middle East sky lit up by bombs and explosions, carried only by CNN — does send the mind reeling: Was television news really that different in the early 1990s?
Seemingly, yes. CNN was the little station that could in 1990, pumped by media maverick Ted Turner and placed in the hands of print editor Tom Johnson (Michael Murphy). Once the issue arises of who’s leading the team into Iraq — the Big Three are already there — Wiener is pleading for the job with a boastful sense that no one else is qualified, seeing as how he was CNN’s Jerusalem bureau chief. First person chosen for his team is Ingrid Formanek (Bonham Carter).
Storyline runs between Aug. 2, 1990, and Jan. 16, 1991, beginning in Kuwait City and then moving into Baghdad. Wiener has gathered a team that includes Formanek and Judy Parker (an underutilized Lili Taylor) and will eventually get some drama from the onscreen talent — the fastidious Richard Roth (Hamish Linklater) and a larger-than-life Peter Arnett (Bruce McGill). It’s up to Wiener to make inroads with Iraqi officials; his relationship with minister of information Naji Al-Hadithi (David Suchet) becomes as crucial to the plot — and his success — as his curious relationship with Formanek.
Al-Hadithi, in Suchet’s calm yet firm portrayal, is compliant with Wiener’s requests — to a point — after Wiener proves he will do whatever it takes to get the news first. Waiting outside the minister’s office for an entire day, for example, was probably a regular occurrence for the real Wiener, and fortunately we have to watch it only once. Wiener’s journalistic impulses are at their clearest in Al-Haditihi’s company; rest of the time, he appears to be playing a game, regardless of whether he is with comrades or competitors. The character doesn’t necessarily pivot and turn toward a darker or brighter persona after a success or failure, nor does any tension develop beyond the most obvious — President Bush and the U.S. vs. Hussein and Iraq.
Formanek, single and free-spirited, looks up to Wiener, married with kids, as a mentor; as the slightest bit of sexual tension is used to make auds wonder if their interaction will move toward the bedroom, the two stop mid-drink and assure viewers that it won’t. Bonham Carter is wholly credible as a TV news producer, and she gives Formanek an appropriate sense of indecision as it becomes clearer that an attack is days away. Formanek has been holed up in a hotel for weeks, but Ivan Strasburg’s camera captures the stunning beauty looking rather fetching late in the pic, as opposed to the hot and sweaty bunch that surrounds her. That visual falseness cuts into what is otherwise an affecting performance.
McGill’s Arnett is huge as a stark contrast to the reserved Bernard Shaw (Robert Wisdom), who arrives in Iraq hoping to interview Hussein. It’s Arnett who saves the day on the air and as the attacks begin, the writing team takes license with Wiener’s story, adding soldiers with drawn rifles searching hotel rooms and a room-rattling explosion. It adds to the danger, but not enough to enhance the thrill of getting the story, which is what this story is all about.
Mick Jackson (“Tuesdays With Morrie”) has given “Baghdad” a stately tone, pushing the telepic more toward Merchant-Ivory than Michael Bay territory. Jackson ensures the proper chemistry among the players and keeps the pic from being strictly about Keaton’s character, who seems no more or less talented or ambitious than any other newsman or -woman encountered in this story. Keaton can’t be accused of being bland, but he does exhibit a perfunctory quality — he is here to service the story, just as Wiener did nearly a dozen years ago.