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Phone Home

In 1991, CNN was ready for prime time in the Persian Gulf. Peter Arnett and a trusty telephone link gave cable viewers a non-Pentagon take on the war. But whose take was it?

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PERSIAN IMMERSION: Helena Bonham Carter and Michael Keaton, journalists standing ground, in Live From Baghdad.
  

So Broadcast News meets Armageddon. It’s a rilly big show! The marvel of Live From Baghdad, based on producer Robert Wiener’s memoir of how CNN came to “own” the story of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, is that TV news gets to aggrandize itself and then feel bad about that aggrandizement simultaneously. And not only are we permitted to watch on a cable channel that doesn’t even have a news division, but we are encouraged to be nostalgic about the first assault on Saddam Hussein just in time for the second.

In fact, for a while that January, it seemed as though Peter Arnett (played here by an over-the-top Bruce McGill) was reporting from a universe parallel and alternative to the rest of television. The lights he saw in the Baghdad night sky, and the thuds we heard on his dedicated four-way phone line from the Al Rashid to Atlanta, suggested an actual violence, a kind of Guernica. Whereas what we got to fill up the rest of the time between briefings from the columbarium of the Pentagon was Luke Skywalker and the Tracers—on the screen, in our face, a seamless web in weird green cyberspace of spin doctors, rent-a-generals, and anchorpeople with laser swords, all plugged in by neurojack to the same video game of smart bombs and dumb Arabs.

Indeed, after leaving town, the competition complained at the time that Saddam would have shut down CNN too if it reported something he didn’t like. The whine of sour grapes, of course—but we are also entitled to wonder about the shutting down of normal news operations on the home front. Who really “owned” the Gulf War story? Except for Arnett in his hotel room, what the American public was allowed to know was what our government decided was good for us. No more Vietnams. But military censorship—at least as old as the Charge of the Light Brigade—is the subject for another sermon, and so is the journalist as glory hound and danger junkie. We are here to think about 24-hour cable news—when it became respectable and before it became Foxy.

How CNN happened to have a telephone line that worked is what Live From Baghdad is all about. Robert Wiener (Michael Keaton, as usual a nervous wreck) needs to make up for missing the fall of Saigon. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the U.N. deadline for Iraqi withdrawal are his signals to set up shop in Baghdad in August 1990. He is joined by his longtime producing partner, Ingrid Formanek (Helena Bonham Carter, reinventing herself as a chain-smoking downtown chick). Also checking into the Al Rashid are the all-pro likes of Lili Taylor and Robert Wisdom, not to neglect Kurt Fuller as the disgruntlement from ABC. Back at CNN’s command module in Atlanta, Michael Murphy and Paul Guilfoyle ingest Wiener’s feed as if it were intravenous.

But the crucial relationship is between Keaton as Wiener and David Suchet as Saddam’s minister of Information. It is Suchet who will arrange for Bernard Shaw’s interview with the dictator, for CNN’s disastrous visit to Kuwait, and for the telephone line. In exchange for what? Here the picture goes a little fuzzy. “How do you sleep at night?” Wiener is asked after an interview that compromises an American oil worker’s safety. His only answer is frantic motion. “Access” is what contemporary journalism is all about, more than intelligence. Besides, no matter how horrific the video—from, say, Bosnia—it never seems to dissuade anybody from another High Noon go at guts for glory. So maybe we deserve what we are most certainly about to get: technoblab in the glitterdome.

French & Saunders: Lord of the Rings (December 5; 8 to 8:30 p.m.; BBC America). Before or after you see the second film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or maybe even instead of, check out Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders’s version of Tolkien, in which you will also meet Harry Potter, Ricki Lake, Bono, and Madonna, not to mention the Dwarf Princess of Nymphomania. It’s Monty Python all over again, except the boys are girls.

Smothered (December 4; 8 to 10 p.m.; Bravo) is the whole dreadful story of CBS’s censorship of the Smothers Brothers comedy-variety show in the 1960s. We hear from Tom, Dick, Carl Reiner, Mason Williams, and former network executives. We see vintage clips. And we are asked to imagine just how dangerous Pete Seeger really was, that the nation shouldn’t be allowed to hear him sing a song against the war in Vietnam.

Helen West: A Clear Conscience (December 7; 9 to 11 p.m.; A&E) is the third TV movie with Amanda Burton as prosecutor Helen West and Conor Mullen as her detective-inspector boyfriend Geoffrey Bailey, this time mixed up in a stabbing murder that may or may not have something to do with domestic violence that, in its turn, could backtrack to something as ugly as incest. Burton, who was a brunette medical examiner in her previous series, is a blonde here, which doesn’t explain why the Helen West films are so much slower than Silent Witness.

Miss Lettie and Me (December 8; 8 to 10 p.m.; TNT) asks Mary Tyler Moore to be a sour apple for an hour and a half, until she is finally won over by the little girl (Holliston Coleman) who has been dumped on her by the niece she raised all by herself after the death of her sister, which niece then deserted her and her farm for a big-city singing career. This is the South, and so, of course, there will be a faithful black retainer, Charlie Robinson from Night Court, to sass Miss Lettie when he isn’t getting her grand-niece into a church where the gospel choir is singing ÒHe’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Did I mention Miss Lettie’s old beau, Burt Reynolds, who has come back from civilization to open an ice-cream-soda shop?

The Locket (December 8; 9 to 11 p.m.; CBS), a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation based on Richard Paul Evans’s best-selling weepie, features Chad Willett as an almost altogether luckless young man who uses up his life savings caring for his invalid mother and then can’t afford to go to college and so goes to work in a nursing home instead, where he will be arrested for killing one of the infirm elderly. He is surrounded by a lot of good acting: Mary McDonnell, who runs the nursing home and should know better than to believe Lori Heuring; Terry O’Quinn as Chad’s alcoholic father; and Marguerite Moreau, last seen starting fires in a Stephen King remake, as Chad’s girlfriend who has gone off to medical school. But Vanessa Redgrave, naturally, steals the TV movie as his favorite patient. Hers is the locket, the wisdom, and the radiance. She deserves a vehicle a lot less creaky.

Heart of a Stranger (December 9; 9 to 11 p.m.; Lifetime) requires Jane Seymour to undergo a heart transplant, after which her personality is so changed that she drinks beer and eats junk food. This upsets her violin-playing daughter, Maggie Lawson, so much that she decides to join a band instead of go to the conservatory. Finally, Jane will visit the family of the donor of her heart, just in time for Christmas and an explanation. This is exactly what we expect this time of year.

Live From Baghdad
Saturday, December 7; 8 to 9:45pm; HBO.


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