In ‘Path to 9/11,’ everyone is to blame
By Ronda Kaysen
If anything sets the fifth anniversary of 9/11 apart from the other 9/11 anniversaries, it’s the plethora of movies about the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Even ABC has jumped into the pile with a five-hour long miniseries based on the “9/11 Commission Report.” The result is a surprisingly riveting account of the events leading from the 1993 W.T.C. bombing to that horrific day in September.
“The Path to 9/11” begins on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, as Mohamed Atta and the other hijackers check in and board the ill-fated planes without much fanfare. After the first panicked calls from flight attendants, it leaps back eight years to Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, sitting in a Ryder truck in the subterranean parking lot of the W.T.C., assembling a bomb. What follows is the story not of Sept. 11, but of how we got there.
The “how” of 9/11 is a tale of warnings ignored and suspects missed not because they were wily, but because political appointees feared taking the heat if the job went wrong. As CIA Director George Tenet says in the film, when National Security Advisory Sandy Berger refused to give Tenet the go ahead to capture Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan: “So if it all goes bad it comes down on my head like Janet Reno in Waco. The buck stops down the hall.”
The hero of “Path” is John O’Neill, the FBI agent who shouted to deaf ears about the looming threat until he died with 2,748 other people in the W.T.C. during his first week as the head of Trade Center security. When most Americans were fretting about Bill Clinton’s Oval Office trysts with an intern, O’Neill, played by Harvey Keitel, pleaded with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (Shirley Douglas), and Tenet and whomever else would listen to pay more attention to a Saudi Arabian billionaire hiding out in Afghanistan.
Keitel plays O’Neill straight the confident, no nonsense G-man who’s willing to stand up to his superiors if it will help him nail his suspects. But he also paints a colorful portrait of O’Neill as a man with a good sense of humor who liked his dinners at Elaine’s. O’Neill worked hard, interrogating suspects on New Year’s Eve, taking calls in the middle of the night, even when no one else cared. When he died in the South Tower, the nation lost a formidable soldier in the war on terror.
Director David L. Cunningham and writer Cyrus Nowrasteh do a commendable job of sifting through vast amounts of intelligence and inside baseball politics. Thomas Kean, chairperson of the 9/11 Commission, consulted the filmmakers on the project and the attention to detail is apparent. The film is ultimately a damning indictment of just about everybody involved with U.S. foreign policy. Nobody wanted to hear what a few lonely Cassandras were saying: that America was staring down the barrel of a gun.
At times, the casting is brilliant. Dan Lauria portrays George Tenet as a well meaning, but tragically ineffective leader whose hands are bound by political forces that outflank him. The physical resemblance between the actor and Tenet is startling. But George Robinson’s portrayal of Dick Cheney on 9/11 is totally off. Robinson comes off as a benign grandfather, gawking in horror at the events unfolding on the television screen a far cry from the all-mighty V.P. that most Americans know.
Although the events of 9/11 make up for only about 30 minutes of the five-hour drama, the looming day colors everything. You want to yell, “No! Do something!” and keep hoping it will somehow turn out differently. But the end is inevitable.
And when the film finally circles back to that gloriously sunny September morning, the final focus on 9/11 is a disappointment. While the violence of the other attacks from the U.S.S. Cole bombing to the U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa is understated, Cunningham could not resist the allure of sentiment at the Trade Center. The movie offers a wide-angle view of history, in stark contrast to the blow-by-blow of “United 93” or the pulled heartstrings of Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center.” But when the film pans in on the papers blowing off John O’Neill’s Trade Center desk in the moments before the building collapses, it lost me. It recreates that day with gripping accuracy the water in the streets, the falling papers but the soundtrack is saccharine. And for a film that is all about the big picture, the close focus is wrong.
The moments inside the White House on Sept. 11, however, are fascinatingRichard Clarke, not Cheney or Rice or even George Bush, ran the show that day. The film is at its best when it tells the back story, looking beyond that day. It shows how 9/11 was not a freak attack by madmen, but a coordinated effort by a formidable enemy we chose to ignore for years.