It is a small mercy that no Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer has yet tried to make an epic September 11 movie. The only two movies about the day have been small, modest affairs--the Naudet brothers' documentary "9/11" and the film version of Anne Nelson's play "The Guys."
Now on the eve of the second anniversary, there's a third entry: Lionel Chetwynd's DC 9/11: Time of Crisis. (It should be noted that Chetwynd is an occasional contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and Fred Barnes served as a consultant to the production.)
"DC 9/11" airs this weekend on Showtime (Sunday, September 7, 8:00 p.m. EST) and while it's technically a made-for-TV movie, it's done in the mold of HBO's "*61," "Conspiracy," and "Live from Baghdad," which is to say: If Chetwynd had put a few million extra dollars into location work, replaced the gifted Penny Johnson Jerald with Halle Berry, and dumbed down the script, "DC 9/11" could have been released theatrically.
As it stands, "DC 9/11" is a wonk's movie. It's not about the events of September 11 so much as the creation of the Bush Doctrine--more "Thirteen Days" than "Tora! Tora! Tora!" It begins in the early hours of September 11 and spans nine days, following the president and his team as they have the wind knocked out of them, struggle to understand the new war, and then decide how America should respond.
The film's greatest strengths come from its verisimilitude. Chetwynd diligently researched that week and a half, interviewing people in the administration--including Bush--and consulting with Fred Barnes, Mort Kondracke, and Charles Krauthammer. No one who wasn't there can say for sure, but it feels as though Chetwynd's gotten it right.
For starters, there's his Bush. The portrait of the president is flattering, but not uniformly so. For one thing, the president, played by Timothy Bottoms (formerly of Comedy Central's unflattering "That's My Bush!"), has the unsettling habit of lapsing into consultant-speak ("getting ducks in a row," "all sizzle, no steak"). For another, in his tart-not-sweet moments, he comes off as, if not actually a bully, then certainly the meanest member at the country club. Yet whatever his weaknesses, the George W. Bush of "DC 9/11" is honest and apolitical. He makes you glad he's not Jack Stanton.
Unsurprisingly, the movie is kind to Condoleezza Rice, played by the lovely Penny Johnson Jerald (the Hillary you love to hate from "24"), who comes across as the wisest, most even-tempered, and most trusted of the president's advisers. Surprisingly, it's also kind to John Ashcroft, who is depicted as being serious and thoughtful and who has the smart idea to change the Justice Department's focus from prosecution to prevention.
"DC 9/11" is less friendly to Karl Rove and Paul Wolfowitz. Rove is shown thinking political strategy even while Ground Zero still smolders and from the very first moments of the crisis, Wolfowitz relentlessly argues for regime change in Iraq, talking ominously about the threat from Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.
THE GREAT CLEAVAGE in America today isn't between conservatives and liberals or Republicans and Democrats. It's between those who see the world as September 10 and those who see it as September 12.
Two years is a long time; life goes on. Lionel Chetwynd's excellent "DC 9/11" is a reminder that those who live as though it were September 10 do so only because of the diligence and sacrifice of those who never forget that it isn't.
Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.