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On dangerous ground

September 09, 2006|Samantha Bonar | Times Staff Writer

This review was based upon the version of the miniseries that was made available by ABC in mid-August. The network is still editing the two-part series.


ABC's miniseries "The Path to 9/11" has assigned itself the daunting and dangerous task of explaining how America ended up one bright morning with planes crashing into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, causing the deaths of about 3,000 people. Daunting because unraveling that knot is an enormously complex undertaking, a huge challenge to our best scholars and experts. Dangerous because with one false move, viewers could be left with partisan propaganda instead of historical dramatization.

"The Path," which leaves the explaining of these complicated world events to entertainers rather than historians, has many false moves. The two-part series airs Sunday and Monday.

The miniseries, directed by David L. Cunningham ("To End All Wars"), and written and produced by Cyrus Nowrasteh ("The Day Reagan Was Shot"), opens with Mohamed Atta and his cohorts boarding the planes that would crash into the twin towers, Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa., on Sept. 11, 2001. Then it flashes back to the first attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993 and introduces us to FBI agent John O'Neill (Harvey Keitel), a tireless expert on Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 16, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
'Path to 9/11': In Saturday's Calendar section, a review of the ABC two-part series "The Path to 9/11" described its use of news footage of President Clinton's denials of "sexual relations ... with that woman, Monica Lewinsky." Clinton's actual phrase, used in the program, was "that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

Part sleuth and part nation's bodyguard, O'Neill is immediately on the case. Keitel, outstanding as always, wins viewers' confidence, perhaps because unconsciously we are relying on him to rewrite history and save us.

With trendy, jerky camera work and a bouncy soundtrack, the five-hour film speed-walks us through smaller attacks that presaged the 9/11 bloodbath: including the 1993 World Trade Center truck bombing; the 1998 American embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania; the failed 1998 U.S. attempt to assassinate Bin Laden in Afghanistan; the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. Despite the best efforts of U.S. security experts to prevent more attacks, history wins and the film ends where it began -- at the doomed World Trade Center towers.

The miniseries was a massive undertaking, with close to 250 speaking parts, more than 300 sets and a budget of $40 million. The production values and acting skills cannot be faulted, and of course the topic is compelling. But something strange starts happening around hour three of the miniseries, when the film none-too-subtly suggests that then-President Clinton was too busy dropping his trousers and later struggling not to lose his shirt in impeachment hearings to pay much attention to what was going on in the world, terrorism-wise. The film shows real news footage of Clinton's denials of "sexual relations ... with that woman, Monica Lewinsky" in 1998 while O'Neill and other CIA and FBI agents were desperately scrambling to find Bin Laden and thwart more attacks.

And then the partisan politics begin to emerge in the script -- big time.

According to "The Path," the Clinton administration was too concerned with such trifles as respecting international laws and treaties, protecting civil liberties, following diplomatic protocol, displaying cultural sensitivity and pursuing larger goals (like Mideast peace) to bring down the bad guys.

At the same time, a fine ribbon of misogyny starts to unwind alongside the wide streak of rah-rah masculine bravado in the film, with just about every woman in authority portrayed as an arrogant witch, from onetime ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine (Patricia Heaton) to Clinton's Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (Shirley Douglas) to Bush's then-national security advisor, now Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (Penny Johnson Jerald). (The one exception is CIA agent Patricia Carver, played by Amy Madigan, who is prone to outbursts of hysterical tears.) When Ahmed Shah Massoud (played by Mido Hamada), commander of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and a key U.S. ally, demands of U.S. operatives: "Are there any men left in Washington, or are they all cowards?," he means this literally as well as figuratively.

But the main problem with "The Path" is that the interspersing of real news footage with dramatized scenes, a technique employed throughout, makes a hopeless muddle of the line between fact and "dramatization."

Although it claims to be based in part on the 9/11 Commission Report, writer-producer Nowrasteh, a self-described conservative, said in an interview with that the report goes back only as far as 1998, and that he did his own research for the years 1993 to 1998.

Yet even if there are not outright lies in the film, as some are claiming -- Albright, for one, has called a scene depicting her actions as "false and defamatory" -- there are many omissions. Notably, one of the most famous images of Sept. 11, President Bush's frozen response while visiting a Florida classroom when he was told of the attacks, is not depicted.

With a projected TV audience in the millions, "The Path" is an irresponsible film, with its factual distortions wrapped in a really terrific package that lulls viewers into complacency, setting them up for the propaganda that is to follow.

If there is one good thing that will come out of the controversy over ABC's "The Path," it is that it hopefully will make citizens read the 9/11 Commission Report for themselves. After all, a democracy is a terrible thing to waste.



`The Path to 9/11'

Where: ABC

When: 8 to 11 p.m. Sunday; At press time, Monday's details were still undetermined, because of the president's scheduled national address.

Rating: TV-14 V (may be unsuitable for children younger than the age of 14 with advisory for violence)

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