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REVIEW

The making of the president, 2001

An untested chief executive becomes a leader of stature in 'DC 9/11: Time of Crisis.' Is the Showtime film's pro-Bush bias earned or imposed?

September 07, 2003|Howard Rosenberg | Special to The Times

Condi, Rummy and the whole gang are on Showtime tonight, basking in the growth of the nation's 43rd president.

An intriguing but uneven new movie about the White House's response to 9/11 fires a thundering shot across the bow of Democrats hoping to unseat George W. Bush in 2004. However much they stress the economy, it's not easy running against Mt. Rushmore.

Although it's two years since the terrorist attacks that rewrote history and Bush's place in it, to much of the public he still wears 9/11 like the Purple Heart, Silver Star and Medal of Honor rolled into one.

His public appearances in the aftermath of that epic calamity spoke for themselves, from his fumbling "awful office speech," as his aides refer to his quickie early comments in "DC 9/11: Time of Crisis," to his inspirational visit to ground zero and widely celebrated televised address to Congress and the globe.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 07, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Cabinet officers -- In an article in today's Calendar about the cable TV movie "DC 9/11: Time of Crisis," the offices of two Bush administration members are reversed. Donald H. Rumsfeld is secretary of Defense and Colin L. Powell is secretary of State.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 14, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
These errors appeared in Sunday Calendar on Sept. 7:
Cabinet members -- In an article about the cable TV movie "DC 9/11: Time of Crisis," the offices of two Bush administration members were reversed. Donald H. Rumsfeld is secretary of Defense and Colin L. Powell is secretary of State.

Clearly, it was a time of accelerated on-the-job maturity for Bush. At one point tonight, he is addressed by an admiring Vice President Dick Cheney as Mr. President with the emphasis on "president," as if he had just burst from the boyhood of his first months in office like Superman from a phone booth.

Yet the soul of Lionel Chetwynd's behind-the-scenes account, which parallels some of Bob Woodward's book "Bush at War," is the president the public didn't see. Some of it is seductive fly-on-the-wall stuff, a titillating look at policy shaping under an ear-splitting drum roll, with Bush (Timothy Bottoms) hearing from Cheney (Lawrence Pressman), Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld (John Cunningham), Defense Secretary Colin Powell (David Fonteno) and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice (Penny Johnson Jerald), among others.

And hearing and hearing, as much of the second hour congeals into turgid, talky, suits-around-a-table discourse, meeting after meeting that surely sets a record for TV characters seated in front of coffee cups and glasses of water.

The purpose here is entertainment, but the wide resonance of even subscription TV like Showtime requires that "Time of Crisis" be viewed in the context of presidential politics.

It's the campaign season, after all. And the Bush whose skin Bottoms wears persuasively is resolute, heroic and prayerful as he feels America's pain deeply and stiff-upper-lips his way through the tense, dicey hours and days after 9/11. It's this Bottoms, by the way, who once vamped it up as buffoonish George W. in the infantile Comedy Central series "That's My Bush!"

An archetypal president

Showtime's Texan is itchy-fingered and ready at the draw tonight but keeps his six-shooters holstered as he and his advisors contemplate how and when to strike back. He's outraged by the attack but measured, challenged by the urgency of the moment but cool, heedful of his Cabinet but commanding and incisive -- a crisis president direct from central casting.

"Absolutely, let this be a thundering shot," said Chetwynd, a passionate Bushite whose Republican politics share a spotlight with his record as a serious screenwriter and filmmaker of mixed achievement. "You want what he [Bush] was able to do in those nine days to be the standard by which we judge not only the Democrats but the standards by which we judge this president."

Chetwynd's many credits range from documentaries to "The Hanoi Hilton," "Kissinger and Nixon" and the Emmy-winning Old Testament story "Joseph." He wrote and produced "Time of Crisis," for which he interviewed administration insiders and was granted a 57-minute sit-down with the president in the Oval Office. He said conservative columnists Charles Krauthammer and Fred Barnes and right-of-center Morton Kondracke were hired as consultants for their access to the White House. He said his and their politics are not in the script.

In any case, why single out and pound on Chetwynd just because he's a known Republican with Bush ties while giving others a pass? The bigger, enduring issue that transcends "Time of Crisis" is not Chetwynd's GOP allegiance but how much leeway filmmakers of any political stripe should have in bending history to fit the dictates of entertainment or politics, whether the subject is George Washington or George Walker Bush. And whether that filmmaker is Chetwynd, in collaboration here with director Brian Trenchard-Smith, or Oliver Stone.

Not much leeway at all, given that TV and theatrical movies are probably America's most influential historians, thanks to gaping sinkholes in the nation's educational system.

In other words, the question is not whether "Time of Crisis" blows Bush a kiss -- it does, a big wet one -- but whether that affection is earned or Chetwynd bulks him up with steroids like Arnold.

Was Bush really the take-charge guy, the tower of sinew and clarity that he's shown to be in "Time of Crisis"? Did he really utter the fearless rally cries that Bottoms does with bravado early in the movie?

Bush: "Whoever did this isn't going to like me as president. They're gonna pay for this."

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