Jerusalem Gets Starring Role in New CNN Documentary

Ewan McGregor narrates ‘Jerusalem: City of Faith and Fury,’ but he’s not had a script like this since ‘Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace’

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
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Jerusalem aka the biggest fireworks factory in the world. Its history is explored in CNN's "Jerusalem: City of Faith and Fury."
Jerusalem, aka the biggest fireworks factory in the world. Its history is explored in CNN's "Jerusalem: City of Faith and Fury."Credit: Oded Balilty,AP
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
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Some headlines are so predictable, we only need to see the first few words to automatically complete them ourselves. For instance: “Bill Murray to …. star in quirky new Wes Anderson movie.” “Taylor Swift … to release new album, fourth this year.” And of course, there’s the evergreen “Unrest in … Jerusalem as rival groups clash.”

The City of Gold (Jerusalem, that is, not Johannesburg, Dubai, Mumbai and all those other “City of Gold” imposters out there) always provokes two thoughts whenever I visit. First, “This is the most amazing, incredible city in the world – I love it!” And then, about 15 minutes later, “This is the most intense, crazy city in the world – I’m grabbing some hummus and heading back to Tel Aviv!”

To be honest, as an adopted Tel Avivian, there’s something about Jerusalem that always makes me a little uneasy, a little nervous. Take the wrong turn in Tel Aviv and the worst that can happen is I’ll be faced by some inept juggler performing at an intersection. Take the wrong turn on one of Jerusalem’s mazy streets, though, and I always expect to suddenly be driving through a Haredi neighborhood on the Sabbath (even if it’s Tuesday when I make the turn) or to run headfirst into a mob of Beitar Jerusalem fans, furious because one of their soccer stars accidentally faced toward Mecca during a game.

Tellingly, while you don’t need to visit Sweden to get Stockholm syndrome, England or Peru to get London or Lima syndrome, Finland to get Helsinki syndrome or, it transpires, Cuba to get Havana syndrome (Vienna will do just as well, apparently), you do need to visit the Holy City to get Jerusalem syndrome.

That, you’ll recall, is when you start developing religious-themed obsessions after being overwhelmed by that sacred aura during a visit – or, as I prefer to call it, you start blending in with the locals.

Jerusalem is basically the biggest fireworks factory in the world and often feels like it is being run by various groups of pyromaniacs. So my anxiety about the place was not eased when I learned that Ewan McGregor has narrated a documentary series for CNN, called “Jerusalem: City of Faith and Fury.”

The cable news network (I am delighted to report that I cannot actually remember any of the puerile slurs Donald Trump called it just six months ago) has been making more and more documentary series in recent years. None, however, has featured a subject as potentially incendiary as the Israeli capital – unless, that is, you’re heavily invested in Jay Leno, David Letterman et al (“The Story of Late Night”), American television legends (“History of the Sitcom,” which started on CNN last week and which I’m really looking forward to watching) or where to get the best pasta in Tuscany (“Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy,” which seems to appear on Israeli CNN more often than President Joe Biden right now).

Of course, even calling Jerusalem Israel’s capital is a divisive move in some quarters (and not just the Old City’s Muslim one). And that’s presumably part of the reason why CNN was attracted to the idea of making a documentary about the place, captured by its tagline for the series: “Three thousand years, six epic battles, the most coveted city in the world.”

After watching the first episode (CNN made three of the six episodes available for preview, but, bizarrely, only episodes 1, 3 and 5, so I’ve opted to watch them in order as they air), I can confirm that McGregor does not appear astride a Harley Davidson, speeding through the Old City’s narrow alleys, at any point.

Instead, the “Star Wars” star spent a day or two in a recording studio providing the narration, which lends this docuseries an almost old-fashioned quaintness – à la Laurence Olivier narrating “The World at War” back in the early ’70s.

Ewan McGregor at the premiere of "Doctor Sleep" in 2019.Credit: MARIO ANZUONI/ REUTERS

Nowadays, though, we’re used to documentarians placing themselves at the heart of the story and being our guide (perhaps the most relevant contrast here being British historian’s Simon Schama’s wonderful 2013 series “The Story of the Jews”).

Indeed, I kept wondering what it would have been like to have a Michael Moore-esque figure strolling around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Al Aqsa mosque and Western Wall to really bring historical events (and, doubtless, local tensions) to life. Or failing that, a few leading historians – one Jewish, one Arab, one Christian – walking around the Old City and arguing over the most contested space on Earth after Britney Spears’ body.

Smart academics, dumbing down

Any show that informs audiences about the complexities of Jerusalem, and how civilizations there have been built atop other cultures over the millennia, is to be applauded. However, the dispiriting thing about the first episode is that the show assembles a lot of smart academics and asks them to talk as if they’re explaining the history of the Holy Land to a 5-year-old.

Episode 1, “The Kingdom,” relays the history of the establishment of the 12 tribes of Israel, the rise of King Saul and the subsequent reigns of kings David and Solomon some 3,000 years ago. There’s a lot of fascinating information in there – why the Philistines always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop in historic retellings; why David chose a remote hilltop settlement as the capital of the United Kingdom, and who was in situ there when he decided “Nice place, I’ll take it”; the symbolism of the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant that supposedly housed the tablets given to Moses, and the significance of Solomon building the First Temple to house said Ark.

But many of the talking heads seem to have acquired a Jerusalem syndrome of their own: an urge to sex-up the ancient tales, lest anyone consider this a dusty old history lesson.

There’s one academic (I won’t name and shame him here) who’s prone to lines like “He’s the equivalent of a social media icon, right? David is the guy everybody’s tweeting about and singing about,” or “One of the ways you can look at it is that King David was the real deal. Even with all of his faults, he was the king that Israel fell in love with.”

"David Victorious Over Goliath" (19th-century print). "One of the most legendary battles in human history," according to the CNN docuseries.Credit: Stefano Bianchetti / Corbis via Getty Images

Other experts fare little better, breathlessly turning 3,000-year-old history into a soap opera with pronouncements like this one about King Solomon: “One of his greatest flaws … is that he really believes bigger is better, with all of his heart.”

I have a personal dislike for documentaries that rely on reenactments, so I really struggled with the recreations of historic events, which kept reminding me of “Life of Brian” (which really doesn’t augur well for the second episode, which will look at what the Romans ever did for us).

One desert reenactment, for instance, stages “one of the most legendary battles in human history”: the heavyweight/lightweight clash between “punky little kid” David and the Philistine giant Goliath in the Valley of Elah in 1000 B.C.E. We also get other key moments in ancient Jewish history, such as when David sees Bathsheba bathing on the roof. Oh, how I wished for some Leonard Cohen-esque lyricism at that point.

The narration by McGregor must feature some of the most childlike sentences he’s been asked to utter since George Lucas presented him with the script for “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” back in the late ’90s (“By marrying Bathsheba, David has brought turmoil to the royal family”).

Despite the dumbed-down approach in the first episode, I’ll keep watching “City of Faith and Fury” in the hope that when archive footage is featured, the more interesting – and, yes, provocative – the documentary will become.

True, I’ll have to suffer horrible reenactments from Roman and Crusader times, but hopefully things will pick up as we progress toward the modern age. Because if those CNN sages think King David was a social media icon, just wait till they see some of the residents of Sheikh Jarrah.

“Jerusalem: City of Faith and Fury” is on CNN in America on Sundays at 10 P.M. in America, and thereafter via CNNgo and CNN mobile apps. Check local listings for when it will be shown in Israel.

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