The Good, the Bad, the Long-winded
Watching the PBS series America at a Crossroads.
Each of the 11 documentaries that make up America at a Crossroads (PBS, all this week at 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. ET) delves into issues pertaining to 9/11 and its aftermath—warfare, wiretapping, terror, the deaths of Americans and Iraqis in Baghdad, and the lives of Muslims from Iowa to Indonesia. Each is hosted by Robert McNeil, who also narrated Sunday night's initial installment, "Jihad: The Men and Ideas Behind Al Qaeda." All of them are at least a little bit too long. And that's the full extent of what the episodes have in common.
Everything from production values to journalistic ones varies radically here.
"The Brotherhood" (Friday at 10 p.m. ET)—about the secretive Sunni movement by that name—combines the depth of investigative reporting with a fair deal of Hollywood flash, playing like a procedural and lit, at points, like Michael Mann's The Insider. Newsweek reporters Mark Hosenball and Mike Isikoff follow the money, interview some principals, and try to shed light on a group whose officials have met with U.S. presidential contenders and al-Qaida operatives alike. Though not without its cheesy flourishes—the two guys sit around an office jawing like Jimmy Breslin and clicking press conferences to life on a TV screen—it's a gripping approach to an underreported topic.
On the other hand, "Security and Liberty: The Other War"—a rudimentary review of eavesdropping and the NSA wiretap scandal directly proceeding "The Brotherhood"—shapes up as a current-events program for people who haven't been paying any attention at all to what is going on in this country, and it does so rather horsily: Slow pans of the White House through its wrought-iron gate; endless shots of phone bills under the shadows of Venetian blinds; clips of Will Smith's Enemy of the State. The narration is deadening: "But the debate over NSA eavesdropping is not over." You don't say?
Material that serves the public interest mingles with stuff that's merely self-serving. Doves might argue that last night's "The Case for War," which takes former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle as its sympathetic centerpiece, represents the most egregious instance of the latter. But Canadian writer Irshad Manji, the narrator, star, and centrifugal force of "Faith Without Fear" (Thursday at 9 p.m.) easily beats him on that score—no mean feat considering that early moments of "The Case for War" find Perle going misty at a screening of John Kennedy's inaugural address.
In terms of pace, "Faith Without Fear" dawdles at an amazing rate: Manji, a Muslim and feminist activist, spends perhaps 20 minutes establishing that no, orthodox interpreters of the Quran aren't terribly progressive on women's issues. But at least it's an occasion for her to talk about something other than herself, and her own book, and what her mother thinks of it. I happen to agree with most of Manji's basic positions, but her way of putting them—self-righteousness and self-promotional—is dispiriting. There are moments when you grow sure that her lecture agent's phone number is about to flash on the screen. When Manji goes to the Netherlands to meet Infidel author and former legislator Ayaan Hirsi Ali, she cannot resist pulling up parallel with her putative subject: "She, like me, knows the dangers of being irreverent."
So, that's the worst of it. Elsewhere, viewers of America at a Crossroads will discover some fine reporting—"Struggle for the Soul of Islam: Inside Indonesia" (Thursday at 10 p.m.) proves especially fascinating—and the occasional feat of art and heart. Monday night's "Operation Homecoming," about the memoirs of veterans of the war in Iraq, combined forceful animation with literal and figurative poetry, oblique commentary, and blunt remembrance. One soldier's quote stuck in the head, a rebuke to the deep streak of pomposity running through the public-broadcasting blockbuster: "There's no reason that the little guy can't tell the story."
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.