WASHINGTON — For most of the central figures in the documentary film "Control Room," the grisly images that emerged from last year's U.S. invasion of Iraq were no cause for a change of opinion.
Over the length of the film, director Jehane Noujaim's inside look at the war through the eyes and lenses of Al Jazeera's journalists based at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar, the chasm only widens between the U.S. military officials who speak about the "liberation" of Iraq and the Al Jazeera reporters skeptical of the invasion.
The exception is a young Marine lieutenant named Josh Rushing.
Rushing, a Central Command spokesman assigned to escort the documentary makers during their time in Qatar, is among the film's most sympathetic characters, portrayed as a thoughtful young man moved over time by the grim reality of war.
“Control Room” depicts then-Lt. Josh Rushing’s friendship with an Al Jazeera reporter.
At no point is he shown doubting the justness of the U.S. effort in Iraq, yet the film documents a budding friendship between Rushing and Al Jazeera reporter Hassan Ibrahim, and moments on camera when Rushing is wrestling with the film's central themes: war, bias and the Arab world's most powerful media outlet.
The Marine's role in the film turned him into a minor celebrity among the art-house-cinema crowd. But the candid comments he made in the documentary and in interviews after its release ran afoul of his superiors in the Marine Corps, which he now plans to leave.
On camera midway through the film, Rushing spoke of being disturbed that footage Al Jazeera, an Arabic-language satellite television channel, broadcast of civilian Iraqi casualties had not affected him as much as images shown the following night of dead American soldiers.
"It upset me on a profound level that I wasn't bothered as much the night before," Rushing said. "It makes me hate war. But it doesn't make me believe we can live in a world without war yet."
Rushing, now a captain assigned to the Marine Corps Motion Picture and Television Liaison office in Los Angeles, has been prohibited from giving any more interviews about his part in the film.
Marine officials at the Pentagon have even asked Rushing to keep his wife, Paige, from giving interviews after she made comments critical of how the military handled her husband's situation. Because of this, several of Rushing's friends say the 31-year-old Marine plans to leave the military in October.
Rushing declined to be interviewed for this article. His situation has angered many in the military public affairs community who say Rushing has been a passionate spokesman for the U.S. armed forces and is being punished for appearing in a film that portrays Al Jazeera — a bete noire of the Bush administration since the Sept. 11 attacks — in a positive light.
"Here's a guy who represents the very best of public affairs in the Marines," says a senior military official who worked with Rushing at Central Command, speaking on condition of anonymity. "For whatever reason, it didn't play well with some of the senior brass in the Marine Corps at Pentagon. They're losing one of their finest."
A 14-year veteran, Rushing enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1990. After serving nine years, he entered the University of Texas on an ROTC scholarship and earned a dual degree in classics and ancient history. This background, Rushing's friends said, gave him a more nuanced view of the Arab world and its attitudes about the West.
"It benefits Al Jazeera to play to Arab nationalism because that's their audience, just like [the Fox News Channel] plays to American patriotism, for the exact same reason — American nationalism — because that's their demographic audience and that's what they want to see," Rushing says at one point during the documentary.
For their part, Marine officials said their problem was not with what Rushing said in the film, but with comments he made after the film was released and received international attention. Some suggested he did not understand his role as an officer.
"He did a few interviews that indicated he might not know what his lane is," said Lt. Col. Stephen Kay, deputy director of Marine Corps public affairs at the Pentagon. "He was way too far in the opinion realm."
One of the articles Kay cited appeared in the Village Voice in May. "People don't understand what a complex organization Al Jazeera is," the article quotes Rushing as saying. "They say it's all Islamists, or Baathists, or Arab nationalists. You have all that, but you have really progressive voices too. Al Jazeera shows it all. It turns your stomach, and you remember there's something wrong with war."
This is a far different picture of Al Jazeera from the one normally described by top U.S. officials. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has denounced the network from the Pentagon podium, calling it a mouthpiece for Al Qaeda and a vehicle of anti-American propaganda.
"We have been lied about, day after day, week after week, month after month for the last 12 months in the Arab press," Rumsfeld said recently after news of the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, specifically citing Al Jazeera and the newer and less influential Al Arabiya channel, based in Dubai.
Kay argued that because Rushing was no longer posted at Central Command, it was not appropriate for him to give interviews about a project he worked on during his old job.
Kay confirmed, however, that he recently sent an e-mail to Rushing asking the Marine to talk to his wife about not giving interviews.
"I did tell him that he could control that if he wanted to. I asked him to consider it," Kay said.
According to several officers assigned to Central Command during last year's invasion of Iraq, Rushing was directed to help the documentary team making "Control Room" in part because he was lowest in the pecking order of public affairs officers in Doha.
"We thought it was just a school project," said one officer who worked with Rushing at Central Command, speaking on condition of anonymity. "And Josh, being the first lieutenant that he was, was assigned to deal with these folks."
In fact, the film has had an effect far exceeding the expectations of the officers at Central Command. Filmed on a shoestring budget and already banking $1.7 million at the box office domestically since its May release, "Control Room" presented a behind-the-curtain look at the Arab world's first big experiment in breaking free from state-sponsored media.
"Al Jazeera has become far more powerful than any Arab leader," said director Noujaim. "A Bedouin can hook up a satellite dish to his truck and watch. They can affect change like no other force in the Arab world has been able to."
According to Noujaim, it was only after Rushing's superiors assigned him to help the film — and the crew got to know him — that they realized the Marine officer would become a central figure in the documentary.
"He turned into a main character because of his personality," the director said. "Josh is a smart, very articulate and intelligent person."
Regardless of what happened a year ago, Kay said the Marine Corps didn't want a Marine so intimately involved in promoting "Control Room."
"I didn't want the production company to use a U.S. Marine Corps captain to promote the documentary," Kay said. "This was my decision as his superior."
Critics of the Marine Corps' handling of the situation point out that the Marines have historically been the most aggressive branch of the armed forces in promoting itself on the silver screen — at least for select films. The mission of the Los Angeles office where Rushing now works is to advance image of Marines in Hollywood. The Marines have worked closely with movies and television shows, including the Nicolas Cage film "Windtalkers" and the Fox reality series "Boot Camp."
"This movie has it all," said a 2002 Marine Corps news release about "Windtalkers" — the story of Navajos who used their native language to encode messages during World War II — adding that the movie was historically correct "down to the smallest detail."
As for Rushing, friends and associates say the Marine has yet to figure out his plans for life after the military.
"I think it's too bad for the Marines he's moving on," Noujaim said. "He convinced a lot of skeptical people in the Arab press that there are those in the U.S. military coming from the right place."
© 2004 Copyright Los Angeles Times