Walt Disney Co.'s ABC is forging ahead with plans to air a miniseries starting Sunday despite controversy over its efforts to dramatize -- and some say unfairly politicize -- the events leading up to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Producers said late Friday that they had finished making minor edits to "The Path to 9/11" amid a firestorm of protests from leading Democrats including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who warned that telecasting "right-wing political propaganda" might violate the terms of ABC's government-mandated broadcast license.
Critics say that, among other things, the film fabricates scenes and unfairly blames the Clinton administration for failing to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. The network, for its part, has urged critics to withhold judgment until the final version airs.
Whatever viewers ultimately see, it's clear that the five-hour $40-million docudrama, highlighting years of intelligence failures and political bickering before the attacks, has detonated an election-year bomb that's reverberating from Hollywood to Capitol Hill.
The movie is also threatening the bipartisan work of the Sept. 11 commission, whose Republican chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, served as a paid consultant on the project and has played a key role in ABC's public-relations campaign.
At least two other commission members -- former Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste and Jamie S. Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general under President Clinton -- have vehemently criticized the miniseries project. And two former Clinton officials, Madeleine Albright and Samuel "Sandy" Berger, expressed dismay with Kean's involvement. Clinton spokesman Jay Carson called ABC's actions "despicable" and said the film was "indisputably wrong."
Kean, in an interview Friday, continued to defend the movie as a "first-class project," adding that although the filmmakers took the recent criticisms seriously and made adjustments when warranted, much of the hostile reaction was political grandstanding from partisans who had seen little if any of the film. "That's the blogosphere, frankly," Kean said of the controversy.
The situation was further complicated Friday, when ABC and other networks agreed to carry live a 15-minute speech from President Bush on Monday night, the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. This speech will air at 9 p.m. Eastern time, forcing ABC to interrupt Part 2 of the miniseries in many markets, including New York and Chicago.
The sharp partisan divide over the miniseries has been seized upon in recent days by radio talk show hosts, bloggers, columnists and the like, so much so that the rancor has largely overshadowed the film's critical reception, which has been mixed.
The flap also underscores the challenges docudramas face in such a hyper-politicized environment. In 2003, supporters of President Reagan were incensed by a CBS movie that fictionalized scenes and put words into Reagan's mouth. CBS yanked "The Reagans" before its airdate and moved it to a much-less-watched sister network, the pay cable outlet Showtime.
Indeed, many conservatives have complained that Democrats have a selective memory. They point out that Democrats seemed unconcerned about Michael Moore's 2004 documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11," which pilloried the Bush administration for its response to the terrorist attacks. (Then-Disney Chief Executive Michael Eisner, saying he wanted the company to avoid political controversy, declined to release that film; it obtained another distributor.) Conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh recently labeled Clinton and Democrats as "just a bunch of thin-skinned bullies now trying to pressure ABC."
When ABC announced "Path to 9/11" last summer, executives seemed to expect a groundbreaking movie that could garner high ratings, even if they did not anticipate the political uproar.
Steve McPherson, the network's entertainment chief, compared the project to ABC's 1983 TV movie "The Day After," which examined the aftermath of a nuclear strike in middle America. "That was such an important movie for a lot of people, and it wasn't about entertainment," McPherson told the trade paper Daily Variety. "It was about putting out a message, and this ['Path to 9/11'] falls into the vein of things you do because you think they can be valuable."
But the network may have at least inadvertently politicized the Sept. 11 film by hiring writer-producer Cyrus Nowrasteh, a politically conservative Iranian American Muslim.