Columns » John Brummett

ABC makes a good story

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“The Path to 9/11,” the ABC movie that marinates fact in fiction and blames Bill Clinton for Osama bin Laden, begins with an erroneous scene.

Mohammad Atta gets cleared to board American Airlines at Boston Logan although his check-in causes a warning to pop up on the attendant’s computer screen.

Actually, that had happened earlier in Portland, Maine, where Atta caught a USA Air Express commuter flight by which he was already cleared when he got to Boston. For that matter, the warning in Maine was random and required only that US Airways Express hold Atta’s checked bags for review, which it did.

The facts are powerful enough. Why not be true to them?

We know why. It would cost a few precious seconds of network time to take Atta from Portland to Boston and through a plane change. The teleplay is best served if you put him on the killing jet directly. Your narrative flows more easily.

You excuse yourself with an editor’s note that some scenes represent “composites” or “time compressions.” Those are euphemisms for “some of this is made up.”

When Clinton and his people cry foul, you’re obliged to wonder if the screenwriter, an avowed right-wing pal of Rush Limbaugh, didn’t bedevil them with sloppy details, too.

This is serious business, evoking 9/11 and presuming to tell its story by passing, or at least implying, judgments. You could do it with straight journalism, meaning reporting of facts. Or you could do it like Michael Moore, with a supposed documentary that has a clear and admitted bias and falls under the category of a polemic.

ABC chose neither. Instead it hired a guy with a conservative point of view to write a fictional script performed by professional pretenders that it presumes to air as fact-based.

Fiction ought to be about wholly fictional characters engaging in wholly fictional events — like, say, “West Wing.” That was a liberal Democrats’ show, yes. But it didn’t presume to be about anything that really happened. Any disapproval of the Bush administration was metaphorical.

Putting aside the treatment of Clinton and his people, the political innuendoes of this miniseries are woefully superficial.

In one scene concocted from whole cloth, the mastermind in the 1993 World Trade Center attack is shown at an airport as he prepares to leave the country. He calls someone to claim credit for the truck bomb. Police shout and walk toward him. It turns out they’re concerned about the vagrant behind him.

What’s the point? Is it that the two policemen should have detained this fellow on the basis that he looked Arab? Is that a sufficiently fair and contextual examination of the great American experiment in personal liberty?

Then, as it happens, this bombing mastermind gets found out when a policewoman in the Philippines finds and opens his laptop without a warrant. American FBI agents lament that they couldn’t have done that.

Again, the point is ... what, exactly? Is it that we need to trash our principle of constitutional protection against illegal searches and seizures? Anyway, I rather suspect that American police agencies could have obtained a warrant easily enough.

Finally, what of the film’s underlying indictment of Clinton, which is that he and his administration had a couple of good chances to nail bin Laden, but balked like girlie men?

In one case the Clinton people were concerned about collateral damage to innocent children. In another the Pentagon — not Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, as this detail-challenged film asserts — notified the Pakistani military that a cruise missile soon to be flying toward Osama was not from India. Otherwise, Pakistan might have been inclined to start a nuclear war with its neighbor. Maybe word got relayed to bin Laden.

Those are matters worthy of arguments availing themselves of hindsight’s brilliance. But they’re hardly sufficient reasons for a movie character to ask whether there were any real men left in Washington. That’s at least as unfair as asking whether there are any real truth-tellers left at ABC.


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