In the beginning of the movie, the fledgling network CNN is involved in a financial restructuring, and the US is on the brink of war with Iraq. CNN is a 24 hour network looking for a 24 hour story and one has just happened. They send a crew to Iraq to report from inside Baghdad. Robert Wiener (Robert) and Ingrid Formanek (Ingrid) are the producers for the crew. When they make it to Iraq their first story is of a little boy being held hostage at Saddam Hussein’s royal palace, although the Iraqis call the little boy simply a “guest.” The movie then cuts to Robert and Ingrid in a dim, smoky bar drinking with reporters from other networks. The story about Saddam’s British hostages, or guests, has just aired on CNN. The text of the story is, “In the rest of the world they’re called hostages, but here they’re called ‘guests.'” The reporters have a problem with the way CNN presented the story and the following is an excerpt taken from their conversation:
Ingrid: It was a good story.
R3: It was bullshit.
Ingrid: No, it was minimum comment, maximum content. That’s all.
R1: That is irresponsible. You let Saddam spout off his garbage without challenging it. You hand Hitler a microphone and you call it journalism.
R3: Where’s the editorial point of view?
Robert: Where’s trusting the viewer? They’ve got the ability to judge this stuff and they’ve got the right to see it.
R1: Oh, god.
R3: But, how can they know what they’re seeing without some sort of context?
Robert: I don’t need some big lead in. I know how I feel about a dictator who puts his hairy fuckin’ hand on some little hostage boy. It’s right there for anybody to see. Who are you to say what it means.
R3: Oh, come on.
(Scene cuts to the Robert and Ingrid alone in the bar, obviously drunk after it has closed)
Robert: Who are we to say what it means.
Ingrid: We didn’t say what it means.
Robert: What do you think in means?
Ingrid: (Shrugs) Don’t know what it means.
Robert: (Sighs) I’ll tell you what it could mean. If we could get both sides talking…
Ingrid: Peace, love and understanding. Come on Wienerish, we’re just the eyes.
Robert: Ya think?
Ingrid: We put the shit up there and they pull it down on their Sonys. I think I’m quoting you.
Robert: No, I said Zeniths. Oh man, are you drunk?
Ingrid: Yes…… The moment we become the story…
Robert: … it’s over. I know, I know, I know.
Ingrid: Fuck’em. It was a good story.
Robert: We’re going to need another one tomorrow.
Ministry of Information
After the night with Ingrid in the bar, Robert decides that the best thing he can do for himself, CNN, and the war is to score an on-air interview with Saddam. As Robert waits all day in the office of Naji Al Hadithi’s (Naji), the head of the Iraqi Ministry of Information, he notices an obvious lack of respect for the media. Reporters have come and gone all day; some are told that Naji is not there, while others are told to wait. Robert is the only one who stays, and the only one who, when the opportunity arises to meet him, can pronounce Naji’s name correctly. Their conversation starts like a shopping list with issuing Robert requests for equipment; but the conversation becomes more interesting when it turns to the plea for an interview with Saddam.
Naji: What would be the purpose for the interview?
Robert: Well, I gotta tell you. I think without dialogue the war is inevitable.
Naji: Yes, but not dialogue is possible. Your government and the Zionists have blackmailed the United Nations. Are you a Zionist?
Robert: No. I’m not.
Naji: You depicted President Hussein as a hostage taker. These people were his guests, nothing more.
Robert: The President got his message out.
Naji: No, you got your message out.
Robert: The Koran says confound not truth with falsehood, nor knowingly conceal the truth. Can we at least agree on that guiding philosophy?
Naji: Do you think I am so naïve as to be charmed by a fortunate turn of memory?
Robert: I lucked out. That’s the only quote I remember from college, that and the impression of the profound human document.
Naji: Divine? …… Why would President Saddam Hussein do CNN?
Robert: Because we’re the only network with global outreach, because we’re in every foreign ministry, and because he watches it.
Naji: (Reaches for a remote control and turns the only TV that is off, out of three, back on. It is tuned to CNN). What would be the interview’s length?
The Role that Dialogue Plays
The evolution of the relationship continues when suddenly CBS, not CNN, receives the right to interview Saddam. Robert clicks on the television and sees his Saddam Hussein interview being done by Dan Rather. In protest, he returns to Naji’s office to confront him. As the relationship develops both parties have begun to trust each other. It is with that trust in mind that Robert accepts Naji’s proposal to be the first media crew into Kuwait since the invasion. This not only helps Robert address the voice of the CNN headquarters, but seems to be an olive branch from Naji for giving the Hussein interview to CBS.
Once in Kuwait, Robert realizes the story in Kuwait is a clever trick. Iraq sent CNN to Kuwait under one stipulation; they can only cover a story on the allegations that Iraqi soldiers were taking Kuwaiti babies off heart monitors and allowing them to die. They are told they will visit three hospitals, but when they arrive in Kuwait they barely get to visit one before the Iraq troops step in. As they return to the airport, they hear on the radio that they have reported that allegations are false. Not only have they not even filed a story, but now they have become the story. Upon returning to Baghdad, they are swarmed by other journalists. Realizing Naji and the Iraqi government used them, Robert goes to confront Naji in an Iraqi public square.
Robert: I trusted you.
Naji: I did what I had to do.
Robert: No, you set me up.
Naji: All governments use the press.
Robert: Bullshit, that’s too easy.
Naji: No, that’s reality. I use you and you use me. We’re the same.
Robert: Oh really? Well, I’ll tell you what. I’m trying to cut through this bullshit and I’m trying to have an honest conversation.
Naji: You want honest?
Naji: Alright. The American people don’t care about the people of Kuwait. This is about oil for you. For us, we care about very different issues: dignity, pride. Much more important to us than oil. More important to us than survival in this mortal realm.
Robert: Ok, ok. So, straighten us out then.
Naji: Alright. An English general carved off a piece from our country after World War I and called it Kuwait. There is a history in this region about which you know nothing.
Robert: Ok, so straighten us out Naji. If we’re getting it wrong put President Saddam Hussein on the air and let him tell us what we’re doing wrong. My people don’t understand your people, so put your man on the air.
Naji: We did that with CBS, it changed nothing.
Robert: No, you’ve got to keep doing it. You just can’t walk away. Think about what’s at stake here, Naji. Think about what we’re talking about. People are gonna to die. People are going to die. And I’ll tell you exactly when they’re going to die. They’re going to die when the talking stops. So, we’ve got to keep talking. You and me got to keep talking. We got to keep talking until we’re old men. Okay? Because soon as the talking stops, we’re dead. Look, maybe I’ll never understand you. Maybe we’re not supposed to understand each other, but as long as we stay talking we stay alive. It’s worth an interview.
Trusting the Audience
However, it turns out not to be too late. Robert gets his interview with Saddam, but fears that nothing new has come of it. As the war begins to escalate, Iraq releases the American hostages and among them is Vinton (an American working in Baghdad whom Robert had an interview with and as a result arrested by the Iraqi government). While Vinton’s release is a colossal, personal relief for Robert, Vinton doesn’t even seem to remember him. Later that evening, Robert begins to talk to Ingrid while overlooking Iraq’s preparations for the war.
Ingrid: Oh, that’s scary. You know they’re talking through us now. Both sides, they’re talking through CNN.
Robert: Yeah, they’re talking, but they’re not listening. What the fuck are we doing here?
Ingrid: Uh, it’s called our job, Wienerish.
Robert: Really? Rapid sound bites. We got a little sound bite of Saddam. We got a little sound bite of Bush. That’s not enough.
Ingrid: What happened to trusting the audience?
Robert: What if you don’t give them the tools they need to understand the story? We’ve got a role to play here.
Ingrid: We don’t solve the world’s problems, we report them.
Robert: Really, is that what it has come down to? Just keep those cameras rolling and wait for the bombs to drop. Nice fucking job.
As the movie continues to develop, the reporters bond as the war becomes imminent. In the midst of all of this, Naji grants CNN use of a four-wire. A four wire allows the crew in Baghdad to communicate directly with headquarters in Atlanta, but the Iraqi government thinks they are talking to the CNN bureau in Iman. The four-wire is also on its own telecommunications grid, which means in case of attack, CNN will be the only network able to broadcast. Over drinks at a public restaurant, Naji confronts Robert with this during a casual, friendly conversation.
Naji: You deceived us.
Robert: What do you mean?
Naji: The four wire, it allows you to speak directly to Atlanta.
Robert: How’d you find out?
Naji: We are the ministry of information.
Robert: You gonna take it back?
Naji: No, we trust you. To use it responsibly. (Pause) Does that make you uneasy?
Naji: We keep them talking there is still hope. Isn’t that what you said?
Naji: God willing.
The ending toast between Robert and Naji exudes the voice of social languages. Robert chooses to use the toast of the Arabic people, and the voice of their social languages to display the respect and understanding he has for them. Naji returns this with the English equivalent to show that the understanding and respect is mutual, they are friends.
The attack on Iraq commences and because of the four wire CNN is the only network with the technological capability to cover it. CNN becomes the world news leader overnight. The following morning, the four wire is confiscated, but the coverage of the night’s attack is enough to declare CNN the clear winner in war coverage. Two weeks of attacks go by and as the dust settles on a decimated Iraq, Robert finally decides to go home. Before leaving he has one more conversation with Naji, and it occurs during a walk through the rubble that covers the city as astonished crews search for survivors.
Robert: Your family?
Naji: They’re safe. Thank you. So, you’re leaving?
Robert: Yeah, it’s time for me to go.
Naji: And we have become friends.
Robert: Yeah. (Pause) You kept your word and you’ve been fair. I can’t ask for more than that from a friend.
Naji: And you got your story.
Robert: (As he surveys the rubble) Yeah, not the one I wanted.
Naji: Isn’t it? (Long pause) I will see you when this war is over…. (Naji walks away as the movie ends).
On the surface, this conversation doesn’t seem crucially instrumental as an example of dialogue. However, it is through the evolution of the movie that we can understand the significance of this conversation. On the public level, it is obvious to see that Robert’s hope to mediate dialogue between the United States and Iraq has failed. The war-torn streets and the smoldering rubble are the outcome of CNN attempting to fulfill the role of mediator between Iraq and the United States. But underlying, we have an example of a successful dialogic relationship on the private or interpersonal level.
The important aspect about this conversation is not the voices that are present, but which one is muted. This is a conversation between two men that are relating to each other without over acknowledging their superaddressees. Robert shows genuine concern for Naji and his family, and they talk as if they are exactly what they say, “friends.” Throughout the movie we see two individuals, who by design should despise each other because of their citizenship to warring factions, but who come together to form a friendship. Every encounter between Robert and Naji advances their knowledge of each other, which is exactly what Buber requires for genuine dialogue. It is to walk away from the moment having learned something about someone or something. As mentioned, it is more than just learning about something, but about listening to and understanding the many voices embedded with their conversations.