Evenhanded almost to a fault, this six-night, 12-hour, 11-film project represents a laudably ambitious endeavor for public television, especially with commercial broadcasters having virtually abdicated primetime coverage of Iraq to focus on sexual predators, true crime and celebrity mischief. Perhaps inevitably, the disparate slate of productions yields an uneven experience, with some material feeling like a watered-down study guide for those who haven’t followed current events since the “Shock and Awe” campaign began. Whatever its flaws, though, credit PBS for inviting political heat to shine a fragmented light on the most divisive and depressing issue of our times.
Derived from an open call for films issued in 2004, scheduling “America at a Crossroads” over consecutive nights during the period between TV’s rating sweeps is a clever strategic maneuver — assembling subject matter that in some instances has been explored elsewhere and, by creating an event around it, magnifying its impact.
Putting perhaps its best foot forward, the series opens with “Jihad: The Men and Ideas Behind Al Qaeda” — a thorough, methodical recap hosted by the series’ overall host, “The Newshour’s” Robert MacNeil. The two-hour production delves into the historical underpinnings of the group, what motivated Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri and, most pointedly, their now-fulfilled goal of luring the U.S. into a fight on Middle East soil, thus ensuring that Muslims “perceive America as the infidel invader of Muslim lands.” Indeed, one expert dubs the invasion of Iraq “an unexpected gift” that has hastened Al Qaeda’s resurgence following the military setbacks it suffered in 2002.
Still, the tone of “Jihad” hardly resembles the customary partisan finger-pointing of cable news, and subsequent installments encompass a wide range of narratives — several highly personal in nature — to illustrate the complicated relationship between the West and Islam as well as the wrenching experiences of soldiers and civilians caught in that maelstrom.
The second night, for example, deals with U.S. servicemen from two perspectives: “Warriors” profiles a handful of soldiers stationed in Baghdad, putting a human face on their situation. The more powerful “Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience” mixes work authored by current soldiers with commentary from those who wrote about previous wars.
“You’re afraid a lot … And fear does not bring out the best in us,” one Vietnam vet observes, in a way explaining how wartime abuses can occur. “It brings out a lot of ugliness, and you really hate the people who make you feel afraid.”
Not all the pieces mesh so neatly. Night three pairs a straightforward “Frontline” report, “Gangs of Iraq,” with “The Case for War: In Defense of Freedom,” a sort-of “My Dinner With Andre” featuring neocon Richard Perle — still a staunch defender of the rationale behind the war — in what amounts to egghead smackdown, debating various ideological opponents regarding its wisdom and prosecution.
“Europe’s 9/11” examines homegrown terrorism in Europe, while “Faith Without Fear” profiles Muslim dissident Irshad Manji, whose outspoken criticism of religious extremism has subjected her to death threats. “The Brotherhood,” meanwhile, investigates whether a Muslim organization is sponsoring terrorism, and “Security Versus Liberty” tackles a hot-button issue Ted Koppel already dissected for Discovery Channel — namely, the balance between security and civil liberties.
Few viewersare likely to devote an entire week to this immersion course, but the hope prevails that key moments will sink in — such as the indelible sequence where a soldier discusses an older Iraqi man whose son was accidentally slain chanting, “Just kill me now” through his sobs.
PBS might not win any ratings battles by wallpapering its lineup with sobering analysis of Iraq and terrorism for a solid week — and potentially exposes itself to renewed assault for a perceived liberal (or more accurately, anti-Bush administration) tilt. By doing so, however, the service is fulfilling its mandate to broadcast in the public’s interest, at a time when that is too-often blithely associated with whatever interests the public.