The Path to 9/11 (part one of two)

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The Path to 9/11 (part one of two)

(Above: Harvey Keitel as John O’Neill in The Path to 9/11)

First installment of “docudrama” fails spectacularly as both documentary and drama

Director: David Cunningham
Writer: Cyrus Nowrasteh
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Donnie Wahlberg, Dan Lauria

If there ever was an event in American history that didn’t need added drama and spiced-up scenes to hook an audience and move its film version along, it’s September 11, 2001. A slapdash, unintentionally comical and somewhat harrowing disgrace of a movie, The Path to 9/11 was a bad idea from the get-go. Were the real details leading to 9/11 not exciting enough? Were they not moving enough—considering all we, as a nation, endured on that day, and all the tragedy’s disturbing consequences—for an ABC Sunday-night movie? The network, its parent company Disney and director David Cunningham didn’t think so.

Or perhaps—just a hunch—this film’s heart wasn’t in the right place to begin with. Released to commemorate the 5th anniversary of 9/11 (but also conveniently ready for the 2006 midterm elections), the timing of this commercial-free Clinton-administration-bashing dramatization is dubious to say the least. A thinly veiled PSA for the struggling GOP and Bush administration—what with malicious accusations against Clinton National Security Advisor Sandy Berger that stand in direct contradiction to the 9/11 Commission Report (which is one of the main sources the film claims to be based on); a terribly unflattering, condescending portrayal of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; a gratuitous reference to Janet Reno and the Waco siege; several seemingly random and overly emphasized references to Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinski, including an actual newsreel clip of the infamous “I did not have sexual relations…” comment; a scene with Sudanese rioters burning Clinton in effigy and terrorists shooting Clinton’s head on a giant video screen, plus insinuations that Bin Laden wasn’t on the U.S. govt.’s radar until the mid 1990s (even though the CIA armed him in the ’80s while he fought the Soviets in Afghanistan) and that Saddam Hussein was behind the World Trade Center bombing (CIA agent to captured terrorist: “Was it Saddam, was WTC a retaliation for the Gulf War?”)—the money spent making and promoting this film should probably be filed under “campaign contribution.”

Of course The Path to 9/11 includes a lengthy disclaimer at the beginning and end—that this film is “not a documentary,” and contains “fictionalized scenes.” But once you start intentionally fictionalizing a film about such an important historical event, what’s the point? Which parts are we, as an audience, supposed to believe? The parts that paint CIA director George Tenet as a goodhearted golden boy who would’ve saved the day if everyone had just let him do his job (when 9/11 Commission Report sources say it was Tenet—not Sandy Berger— who pulled the plug on the Bin Laden assassination attempts during the Clinton years, because of the risk of excessive agent and civilian casualties)? Regardless of its attempts at excusing itself, Cunningham’s film and its not-so-sly distortions of history seem in the spirit of Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl, only without the skills and mastery of craft to make them effective.

As riddled with holes as its fact-checking is, this “docudrama” fails even more spectacularly as a drama than a documentary. Mildly entertaining at best (and only for the irony, with the film’s after-school-special-caliber storytelling, fitting considering Marc Platt—who’s given us gems like Josie and the Pussy Cats and Legally Blonde—was executive producer), The Path to 9/11 presents situations and characters as black-and-white when the subject matter’s treatment would benefit enormously from some subtlety and shades of grey. In Cunningham’s paper-thin world the good guys always laugh and smile and pat you on the back (The Northern Alliance) and the bad guys (terrorists with furrowed brows) curse and spit and scowl and sneer. Portrayed as mindless subhuman animals, any trace of the latter’s humanity is washed away. Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s puppets in Team America (“Dirka Dirka Jihad, Muhammad Jihad!”) had more depth as characters.

And The Path to 9/11’s FBI agents aren’t much better: they’re tough-as-nails on the job, and they sing a raucous round of “Danny Boy” over drinks after the Millennium celebrations go off without a hitch. Too bad Cunningham couldn’t get Steven Siegal or Vin Diesel in there; it would’ve been a perfect fit. Which is one of many reasons why it’s so hard to believe a top-notch actor like Harvey Keitel—whose body of work I have the utmost respect for—would consider such a one-dimensional role. What would make someone like Keitel (who plays one of these agents) want to deliver lazy lines like, “I’d like to knock your block off” (to a captured terrorist), and “here’s to cujones,” praising George Tenet’s fictionalized telling off of Clinton cabinet members for not letting him take out Bin Laden (also fictionalized). Is it money? Politics? I’m not quite sure, but it couldn’t have been because Keitel fell in love with the script—the dialogue in The Path to 9/11 is rarely believable, with its constant reliance on clichés, awkwardly tossed-off acronyms and blunt oversimplification (Al Qaeda #2 Zawahiri on the 9/11 terror plan: “The beauty of this operation will be its massive number of casualties.”)

And let’s not forget the patently absurd. During one scene, after the U.S. embassy bombing in Kenya, a CIA agent arrests an Arab terrorist involved with the plot, but as he drags him though a Nairobi ghetto, the locals look like they’re about to get hostile with the American operative. But all is set right when one of the Kenyans starts shouting, “Michael Jordan, Michael Jordan!” (oh, sweet cultural imperialism, you have saved the day once again). “Yeah, that’s right, I’m Larry Bird,” the agent responds as the crowd miraculously parts and lets him pass.

Of course, with the complex series of events that led to 9/11, there’s plenty of blame to go around in the U.S. govt.—and not just for the Clinton camp. But this two-part series’ first installment fails to crack the surface of this complexity. There’s only a casual mention of Bin Laden’s fury over the U.S presence in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War (and absent from this film, unsurprisingly considering its shortcomings, are any mention of British and French Imperialism and their effects on the present-day Middle East; U.S. President Eisenhower and the Brits’ backing of the Shah, who staged a coup in Iran in the ’50s after the Iranian parliament nationalized the country’s oil industry, which the West had been exploiting since World War II at the expense of terrible poverty in Iran; or the Carter administration’s backing of anti-Marxist insurgents in Afghanistan to draw the Soviets into what would become their own Vietnam).

Part two of The Path to 9/11 airs tonight at 8 p.m.—with a special break for a word from (our sponsor?) President Bush at 9 p.m.—and it remains to be seen whether the current administration will be as scathingly portrayed as Clinton’s was in part one. Something in my gut tells me no, but we shall see.