A "mind-numbingly boring" propaganda film

A 9/11 widow reviews last night's Showtime film about President Bush's actions on and after that fateful morning.

Published September 8, 2003 8:00PM (EDT)

The film "DC 9/11: Time of Crisis," which premiered Sunday night on Showtime, is a mind-numbingly boring, revisionist, two-hour-long wish list of how 9/11 might have gone if we had real leaders in the current administration. This film is rated half of a fighter jet -- since that is about what we got for our nation's defense on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Despite the title, the film only budgets approximately 10 minutes to the actual morning of 9/11. Most of the movie is spent cataloging the myriad Cabinet-level debates as to whether to declare "war" against terrorism and how to effectively sell that to the American people.

It is understandable that so little time is actually devoted to the president's true actions on the morning of 9/11. Because to show the entire 23 minutes from 9:03 to 9:25 a.m., when President Bush, in reality, remained seated and listening to "second grade story-hour" while people like my husband were burning alive inside the World Trade Center towers, would run counter to Karl Rove's art direction and grand vision.

Remember the aircraft-carrier photo op? Bush is a man of action; in fact, he is an action hero. Except, of course, when it really counts, like in those early morning hours when this country was under attack and our commander in chief was drinking milk and eating cookies with second graders. Can you imagine one of those second-graders years from now when they are asked where they were on the morning of 9/11? They will simply say, "I was sitting with the president reading him a story."

It also confuses me that the filmmakers would allot so much time to the war posturing in Afghanistan because that, too, has been a failure. President Bush is quoted in the fictional drama as saying he will take Osama bin Laden "dead or alive." But, I'm sorry, have we captured him? And why so much time spent on this war plan anyway? I thought there was a copy of it on the president's desk the day before 9/11? So what's all the fuss about? Why all the Cabinet meetings with all the dignified speak?

The real Condoleezza Rice apparently didn't know planes could be used as weapons, but she is portrayed in the movie as a woman who knew an awful lot about bin Laden and al-Qaida by 8 p.m. on the evening of the attacks. The real FBI was caught flat-footed by bin Laden and the 19 hijackers, but in the movie they gather the names and photos of the hijackers very rapidly. I guess their "networking" problems, like Rice's bin Laden knowledge, got "cleaned up" by the evening of 9/11 in the movie version.

It's also interesting to watch the fictional versions of Ari Fleischer and Karen Hughes "strategizing" and "orchestrating" to make President Bush look like a strong leader. Who knew that it was such hard work to frame the president as an empathetic, strong and competent leader in the face of the nation's worst tragedy? Forgive my naiveté, but I never knew how meticulously planned the president's every single word and movement were. And if his words are that carefully and painfully chosen, just how did those 16 words get into his State of the Union address anyway? But I digress.

What is so "off" about the film is that it is too slow, too methodical, too calm. There are no suit jackets hanging over chairs, no 5 o'clock shadows, no empty coffee cups strewn about, no shirt-sleeves rolled up, no people pulling all-nighters. No tempers flaring. No panic. No raw emotion. Nothing but a lot of talking, walking and more talking, and the occasional workout session by the president -- who knew he could bench-press so much weight?

When juxtaposed against the recently released transcripts of 9/11 phone calls from inside the towers, the administration's attitude doesn't look good. How could they all be so relaxed? So unemotional. How could any of them even sleep? Why weren't they worried about a second wave of attacks? How did they know for sure that there was not another attack soon to follow? Why were they so uninterested in the rescue and recovery efforts? Maybe this would explain why the Environmental Protection Agency couldn't be bothered to monitor the air quality of lower Manhattan. Nobody cared. If the administration is this relaxed facing the nation's worst tragedy, are they asleep when they negotiate healthcare reform?

Just as an aside, I especially liked the tender moments shared between the president and first lady, particularly when she mentioned the atrocities the Afghan women faced under the rule of the Taliban. We -- the 9/11 widows -- have requested meetings with the first lady to discuss our goals for the 9/11 Independent Commission. She never answers. Honestly, we take offense that Mrs. Bush will fly halfway around the world to meet with Afghan women and yet she won't meet with us. All we want to do is make this nation safe for our children.

I did learn some things in the film. First, I didn't realize that it took President Bush until Friday afternoon to visit New York. Frankly, I don't remember much of the month of September 2001, but why would the administration want to publicize the fact that it took the president so long to visit the place terrorists had attacked? Are we buying the story that it was for national security reasons?

And since we are talking about the visit to ground zero, I found it particularly offensive that there was so much posturing about how to get the best photo op. The worst part comes when the president meets a young mother and child who are desperately searching for their missing husband and father. President Bush takes the picture of the child's father and signs his name across it, telling the young girl, "When your daddy comes back, tell him you met me." For a child and wife facing the devastating loss of a loved one who very likely has just been burned, crushed and buried in rubble, meeting the president doesn't rightly matter. Nor does it matter having his signature scrawled across a photo that you wanted to display on a wall of missing victims -- something that would have offered at least a glimmer of hope.

Miscellaneous things that surprised me included the fact that the film perpetuates the big fat lie that Air Force One was a target. Forgive me, but I thought the White House admitted at the end of September 2001 that Air Force One was never a target, that no code words were spoken and that it was all a lie. So what gives?

Also surprising is the debate about whether the military may or may not have shot down Flight 93 over Pennsylvania. You would think that the president of the United States would know the answer to this query, and yet a shoot-down is raised as a possibility and never definitively answered -- even to the president.

There was also no mention of the Saudi royals and bin Laden family members who were allegedly flown out of the country in the first few days after the attacks. I guess that got left on the cutting room floor.

Not surprisingly, there is no mention of accountability. Not once does anyone say, "How the hell did this happen? Heads will roll!" I was hoping that, at least behind closed doors, there were words like, "Look, we really screwed up! Let's make sure we find out what went wrong and that it never happens again!" Nope, no such luck.

Finally, with the abundance of creative license taken in the film, I was surprised to see that it didn't take better "care" of Donald Rumsfeld. On the morning of 9/11, Rumsfeld remained at his desk -- apparently unaware that we were under attack until the Pentagon was hit, a full hour after the WTC. Why the film editors decided not to rewrite this history I don't know -- maybe in real life, thanks to recent developments in Iraq, Rummy will be leaving soon to spend more time with his family.

I watched this film with three of my widow friends. We have spent the last two years fighting this administration to try to get answers to the many questions that plague us about 9/11. When they're finally answered, our questions will undoubtedly make this nation safer than it was on that morning. But our reality is that our husbands are never coming home. We are left to raise our children without them. Too bad Showtime can't rewrite our history of 9/11 -- that would be something worth watching.

By Kristen Breitweiser

Kristen Breitweiser is a 9/11 widow. She is a co-founder of the group September 11th Advocates and is a member of the Family Steering Committee for the 9/11 Independent Commission.

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9/11 Donald Rumsfeld George W. Bush Television