The Fictional Path to 9/11
Perhaps the entertainment industry will come up with a few lasting lessons from the outcry over ABC’s “dramatization” of the events leading up to the terrorist attacks on 9/11. One suggestion: when attempting to recreate real events on screen, you do not show real people doing things they never did.
The film, a fictionalized portrayal of the nation’s failure to head off the attack on the World Trade Center, was shown Sunday and Monday. The second episode was wrapped around a live speech by President Bush, so it was especially unfortunate that the most questionable scenes all seemed to make the Clinton administration look worse, and Mr. Bush look better, than the record indicates.
Some of the most controversial scenes were cut at the last minute. But the first episode, for instance, showed C.I.A. agents and the charismatic leader of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance perched outside a bin Laden camp, ready to swoop in and capture him if only Washington approved. The authorization is not granted, and the Afghan leader rails, “Are there no men in Washington, or are they all cowards?” Yet neither C.I.A. operatives nor the Northern Alliance leader ever laid eyes on Osama bin Laden, terrorism experts say. The film may be referring to a proposed raid by other Afghan tribesmen that was vetoed by the C.I.A. because it had a low probability of success and was apt to harm civilians.
The “docudrama” format can be useful in allowing viewers to see recent history through the eyes of fictional characters inserted in the action. But it carries the inherent risk that scriptwriters will take the opportunity to improve on history. ABC should certainly have been aware this was a danger with such a politically charged topic. If that thought never occurred to the folks in charge, they might have heard warning bells when Rush Limbaugh went on the air promoting the film and bragging that the writer was a friend of his.
It was especially disturbing that Tom Kean, co-chairman of the 9/11 commission and a former Republican governor of New Jersey, was willing to lend his prestige to this ill-considered project. Mr. Kean served as a senior consultant to the miniseries and has repeatedly defended it in public, even as several Democratic members of the commission criticized its distortions. Mr. Kean has said he will give his payment to charity, but that does not undo the damage done to the aura of bipartisanship that has surrounded the commission’s work. And it has not defused concerns that Mr. Kean did it in part to help his son, who is the Republican candidate for Senate in a close race in New Jersey.
Maybe Mr. Kean wasn’t entirely kidding when he quipped that he had not apologized to President Bill Clinton for any inaccuracies because “he was out campaigning against my son yesterday, so I didn’t reach out to him at all.” Whatever his motives, he has tarnished his carefully nurtured image of a statesman above the political fray.