television: Life-Risking Reports 

HBO takes us back to the war that initiated CNN as one of the big boys of world journalism.

It shouldn't. Apparently the network figured it would be better to air its movie about CNN's coverage of the start of the 1991 Persian Gulf War now. The theory seems to be that viewers will be more interested in the old war before the new one starts.

And they're probably right. Suddenly, with another war perhaps only weeks or months away, the movie is frighteningly relevant.

Nevertheless, "Live from Baghdad" is a cracking good story, a swashbuckling look at daredevil TV producers and reporters who risked their lives - literally - to bring the opening shots of the 1991 war into our living rooms.

You remember the start of the Persian Gulf War. It changed CNN from a nice-to-have network into a network that news junkies had to have. It's how CNN made its bones in the all-news business.

But do you remember that what we saw was really the equivalent of an excellent live-from-the-scene radio broadcast? What we saw was a map of Baghdad and thumbnail boxes with pictures of three CNN reporters: Peter Arnett, John Holliman and Bernard Shaw. What we heard was their gripping, spellbinding account of Allied bombs, rockets and shells exploding on Baghdad — just outside their window in Suite 906 of the Al Rashid Hotel. Because of a small device known in the trade as a "four-wire," they had voice contact with the outside world long after other news agencies had been cut off. Their reporting transfixed a nation and a world, even if the visuals were less than spectacular that first night. Who cared about the lack of images? It was dark there anyway.

CNN producers Robert Wiener (Michael Keaton) and Ingrid Formanek (Helena Bonham Carter) arrived in Baghdad in August of 1990, six months before the deadline for the Iraqis to get out of Kuwait. By the time the war started, Wiener and his team had battled every obstacle thrown in their way by the Iraqis and positioned themselves to lead their Little Network That Could to victory and into newsgathering history. In 1992, Wiener published a book about their experience, "Live from Baghdad: Gathering News from Ground Zero." In it, he told what we didn't see that night — how at one point the team had to hide beneath a bed to save themselves from Iraqi troops, how close they came to dying in that suite of rooms, and how they held their continuous live broadcast together with little more than batteries, flashlights, good luck and hope. The HBO movie is based on his book.

Keaton lends the perfect rakish air to his portrayal of the unkempt producer who had to scramble to keep his underpaid and overworked team together as war clouds gathered. Bonham Carter adds a dash of grounded reality, and Bruce McGill, John Carroll Lynch and Robert Wisdom bear an uncanny resemblance to the three reporters they portray, Arnett, Holliman and Shaw. David Suchet, familiar to viewers as Agatha Christie's Inspector Poirot, turns in a journeyman performance as the Iraqi minister of information who made it possible for the CNN team to obtain and use their coveted four-wire.

There is no higher praise that can be bestowed upon "Live from Baghdad" than to say that it vividly and hauntingly takes us back to that mesmerizing evening in 1991 when CNN showed that it had what it takes to play with the big boys of world journalism. S

"Live from Baghdad" debuts on HBO Dec. 7 at 8 p.m., with repeats scheduled Dec. 15 (9 p.m.), 18 (8 p.m. and 4:35 a.m.), 23 (11:15 p.m.) and 27 (12:30 a.m.).


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