CNN has pledged to enlarge its footprint in serious documentaries, representing a welcome use of the news network’s resources, as opposed to trying to out-Fox Fox News or out-sleaze TMZ.com on Paris Hilton exclusives. Deftly tackling a potentially explosive topic in this three-part project, correspondent Christiane Amanpour delves into religious fundamentalism — Jewish, Muslim and Christian — showcasing the volatility that ensues “when piety meets politics.” The channel will surely endure charges of moral equivalency from Christian groups, but it’s a tough, smart, historically grounded look at the intractability of these issues.
Amanpour begins her reporting in Jerusalem, the focal point of so many claims and counterclaims of divine rights and inspiration. At times, the project feels like a greatest-hits compilation of religious intolerance and fanaticism, centering on those who have found and continue to find justification for violence in the name of their beliefs, including the militants who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
Although Amanpour concludes the three parts by saying the goal was not to judge these “warriors” but simply “to explain them,” that’s virtually impossible given the touchiness of the subject matter. Still, the reporting nicely mixes interviews with experts, leaders and true believers.
The headlines will doubtless hinge on the famous names — from Jimmy Carter reiterating his contention that Israeli settlements are “the major obstacle to peace” between the Israelis and Palestinians to Jerry Falwell, in an interview just before his death, standing by his statement that the Sept. 11 attacks were able to occur because God removed his “shield of protection” over America due to abortion.
The more disturbing sequences, however, come from lesser-known sources: an Iranian woman defending stoning women to death, “even if the whole world is against it”; a family expressing support for their son, a suicide bomber; the Muslim assessment of the U.S. as materialistic and spiritually empty; the Christian ministry enlisting kids barely out of grade school to protest against gays.
While the three-part structure makes obvious sense, the time allotted to register these points feels excessive. Based on the number of times I looked at my watch viewing an incomplete preview, 4½ hours surely would have sufficed.
That said, given the overheated rhetoric that characterizes the discourse surrounding the “war on terror,” such contextual analysis is sorely needed — highlighting the fear that prompts religious orthodoxies to lash out at modern society, while reminding us that no major religion is unpolluted by dangerous zealotry.
In its commitment to more high-minded, ambitious docs, CNN will follow with “Afghanistan, Lifting the Veil,” which premieres in September and examines the gains and setbacks in that country — where women still struggle and poverty remains rampant — since the Taliban was ousted from power.
All told, it’s a welcome departure from cable news’ baser instincts, where predators, missing women and kids, and celebrity foibles command centerstage on a daily basis, with scant time devoted to the expensive, theoretically ratings-deflating proposition of providing a wider window onto the world.
As warriors go, that’s a battle that Amanpour and a few lingering holdouts are, alas, clearly losing.