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THE WAR THAT PUT CNN ON THE MAP.

Byline: David Kronke TV Critic

'LIVE FROM BAGHDAD'' offers electric storytelling made all the more urgent by the fact that we may be seeing it all played out again, and very soon.

The HBO film is based on former CNN producer Robert Wiener's memoir on his being at what was then the Cable News Network's ground zero for its respectability in the world of TV news. Few who witnessed the nascent news network's reportage from Baghdad as the Gulf War began could forget the muddy images and the riveting accounts as American bombs began raining upon Iraq in January 1991. This film tells us how that story came to impress itself upon us so memorably.

Wiener (here played with a deadpan urgency by Michael Keaton) was part of the then-struggling CNN news team. When he prepares to leave for Baghdad (after Iraq has steamrollered Kuwait), he tells his bosses, ``I'm gonna need a (expletive)-load of cash,'' and they merely laugh. He requests that news producer Ingrid Formanek (Helena Bonham Carter) accompany him, because, he says, ``She second-guesses everything I do.'' Everyone believes they're sleeping with one another; a later scene finds them wondering if that indeed is true, given their drunken times together.

This is a time before the ubiquitous pictophones that reporters such as Nic Robertson employed in Afghanistan during the Sept. 11 attacks - Wiener has to finesse every tiny, crucial communications device out of the Iraqi government (actually, Wiener credits CNN's current chief news executive, Eason Jordan, with securing the crucial piece of technology that allowed them to continue broadcasting once the bombs started hitting).

``Live From Baghdad'' does a pretty good job of depicting the gallows humor that informed the attitudes of Western journalists stationed in Iraq in those days, but it does an even better job of essaying the relationship between Wiener and the minister of Iraqi information (British actor David Suchet, who has become memorable playing Agatha Christie's Inspector Poirot, here does wonders with his eyebrows). Their relationship becomes ``Live From Baghdad's'' primary focus.

The film shows how Wiener and his team walked the fine line between international diplomacy and issuing Iraqi propaganda. Wiener tells Iraqi officials, ``People are going to start dying when we stop talking. We have to keep talking until we're old men.''

Meanwhile, the network both struggled to accomplish more than transmitting simple Iraqi tropes, even while its reporters were hounded by ``minders,'' Iraqis who ensured they toed the party line - if they didn't, they risked getting booted from the country.

A grim irony arises when, with the country on the verge of war, the news producers are all busy trying to arrange a scoop - an interview with Saddam Hussein. Geopolitics be damned, ratings are what the news folks are most obsessed with.

The screenplay, credited to Wiener, Robert Chapman, John Patrick Shanley and Timothy J. Sexton, fairly crackles with epigrammatic dialogue. Director Mick Jackson imbues the production with a gripping dramatic urgency. Keaton walks a tricky, moving line between swagger and uncertainty, sensitivity and understanding the limitations of TV journalism. The rest of the cast is likewise perfectly pitched, including Bonham Carter, Suchet, Lili Taylor, Bruce McGill and others.

The film also satirizes the sensibility of TV news: Back in Atlanta, we see CNN's executives deciding on a graphic to define its coverage - they opt for one reading ``Crisis in the Gulf,'' but then tell the graphic designer, ``Make that the 'Persian Gulf' - Middle America might think we're bombing Mexico.''

It's impossible to say at this point whether the film would play so intensely were America not at the brink of war again with Iraq; suffice it to say, the material is plenty potent as viewers approach it today.

``Live From Baghdad'' celebrates the notion of making the reporters part of the story - something journalists have been taught to eschew, and something that I, as a journalist, don't like to see.

Sunday night, Peter Arnett, played by Bruce McGill in the HBO movie, contributes a documentary to MSNBC, ``Back to Baghdad.''

In much of ``Back to Baghdad,'' Arnett is the story - the documentary even shows him packing at length for his latest trip and his requesting reviews of Iraqi officials: ``Maybe Peter's persistence will pay off,'' the narrator hopefully notes. But it's fascinating for its glimpse of Iraqi society - the country is not as fundamentalist as other Arab territories, Arnett points out, showing Iraqis buying bootleg CDs, Western clothing styles and aspiring to Internet access.

Arnett interviews Iraq's deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, who tells him that Hussein is arming all civilians for the impending war. At that point, war reportage may not seem so fun and glamorous.

LIVE FROM BAGHDAD - Three and one half stars

What: Docudrama about CNN's coverage of the beginning of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Where: HBO.

When: 8 tonight; also Tuesday, Dec. 15, 18, 23 and 27; Dec. 12 and 29 on HBO2.

In a nutshell: Gripping behind-the-scenes drama of the moment CNN came of age.

BACK TO BAGHDAD - Three stars

What: Reporter Peter Arnett returns to Iraq and visits its people on the eve of war in this documentary.

Where: MSNBC.

When: 5 and 8 p.m. Sunday.

In a nutshell: Selndulgent in its depiction of Arnett but revealing in its portrait of the country and its citizens.

CAPTION(S):

3 photos

Photo:

(1) Michael Keaton, left, Helena Bonham Carter, Lili Taylor and Joshua Leonard play the CNN crew whose reports gave the news network a new prominence during the 1991 Gulf War.

(2) Keaton is CNN producer Robert Wiener, on whose biography ``Live From Baghdad'' is based.

(3) David Suchet is the minister of Iraqi information who faces off with CNN's crew in ``Live From Baghdad.''
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Title Annotation:Review; U
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Dec 7, 2002
Words:955
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