With United 93 and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Centers this summer’s offering of 9/11 dramas, one can be forgiven for forgetting that the very first real 9/11 dramatic film was a cable movie called DC: 9/11 – Time of Crisis that aired on Showtime three years ago. The film depicts the first ten days of the War on Terror from the point of view of the Bush White House.
While it’s a talky movie, with action generally taking place off screen or shown with news archive footage, DC: 9/11 is a fascinating fly on the wall look at an administration struggling to understand and then respond to the most horrific attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. It’s main characters, headlined by President George W. Bush, are people who are yet in television night after night.
The film starts with Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, played by John Cunningham, attempting to impress a group of congressmen about the changed nature of warfare in the 21st Century and how America’s armed forces must adapt. Of course, that is foreshadowing considering what was about to happen.
The drama begins in that classroom in Florida when Andrew Card, then the White House Chief of Staff, walks in and tells President George W. Bush, played by Timothy Bottoms, that the second tower of the World Trade Center had been hit and America was at war. One sees a universe of emotions pass over the face of President Bush within the space of a few seconds. Does he jump up, scattering frightened children in his wake, to try to “take charge?”
Bush knows that nothing he can do in those first few minutes can affect whatever is happening. He has professionals gathering intelligence and making decisions. Bush decides to finish the education event as if nothing has happened and then, with calm deliberation, leave the room he entered as a peace time President, a war leader.
DC:9/11 captures the chaos and the fog of war of that day brilliantly. No one knows the full extent of the attack. There are rumors of snipers roaming American cities, a truck bomb at the Supreme Court, the White House and/or the Capital in flames. We see the frenzy of White House staffers evacuating, first being ordered to be calm, then to run like hell. There’s a moment when then speech writer David Frum wonders about the safety of his son, at the moment at a Jewish day school.
The film depicts the strange odyssey of Air Force One as the Secret Service, concerned over a reported threat to the plan itself, keeps the President from returning to Washington. President Bush, increasingly frustrated that “those people” are keeping him from coming home, finally overrules his security experts and returns to the White House.
At that point, there are a series of meetings, some to craft speeches to reassure the nation and prepare it for war, others to plan the strategy for the war that had been thrust upon the United States. President Bush, a Harvard MBA, is seen as listening to everyone’s opinion, patiently, before making a decision. It is a fascinating look at how policy is made in a White House run by adults, with the pressures of life and death never absent. It is more true to life than any of the fantasies spun in any episode of The West Wing.
The high point of the film is the depiction of the trip by President Bush to Ground Zero. He breaks from the planned routine, grabs a bull horn, and addresses the fire fighters and rescue workers. “I can hear you! The whole world hears you! And soon the people who knocked these buildings down will hear from all of us!” As the fire fighters beg the President to smite those who had committed the atrocity, with charming blue collar eloquence, we see President Bush transformed into a war leader like Churchill or Lincoln.
President Bush is a man who feels, authentically. The two most heart breaking scenes in the film happen in a hospital, where the victims from the Pentagon are, and when President Bush meets some of the relatives of the World Trade Center victims. In the first scene, President Bush meets a woman who has many months of agony ahead of her in a burn unit. She is in agony now, having crawled literally through flames to survive.
In the second scene, President Bush meets an elderly lady whose policeman son died in the collapse of the World Trade Center. She presents him with his police shield, a token that President Bush has still. In both scenes we see the emotions behind President Bush’s face. The man wants to weep. The President must channel that hurt and rage into action. America’s second day of infamy must never happen again.
Among other outstanding performances are Penny Johnson Jerard as then National Security Advisor Condi Rice, Lawrence Pressman as Vice President Dick Cheney, Mary Gordon Murray as Laura Bush and Carolyn Scott as Karen Hughes. Indeed, a whole slew of world leaders (Tony Blair and Ariel Sharon), Senators (John McCain and Robert Byrd), and other people familiar for those who watch the news have their memorable moments on the stage.
DC: 9/11 will be remembered as a historical document of 9/11 as well as a dramatic film. It was directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith and produced and written by Lionel Chetwynd. It will not please those people who are beset by Bush Hatred Syndrome. But for the rest of us, DC: 9/11 is an invaluable reminder of the so far worse day of the 21st Century, which began a war that may well last for the rest of our lives.