Watching ABC’s “The Path to 9/11” on September 10th and 11th was a tortuous, grueling exercise in journalistic duty. I viewed it simply because former President Bill Clinton and many from his administration objected to it and raised the specter of censorship. ABC promoted it as a “dramatization” of the events leading up to the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and on the Pentagon.
True, there is a difference between a “dramatization” and a “documentary.” Many of Shakespeare’s plays are imaginary “dramatizations” of the lives and actions of English kings. Doubtless, if Kings Richard, John, and the various Henrys had been alive to audit Shakespeare’s plays, every one of them might have protested, “Hey! I never said that! I never did that! That’s not how it happened!”
A documentary, on the other hand, should clearly recount the details and circumstances of a historical event, based on available evidence. The only value judgments the director of a documentary may make is whether or not a fact is true and contributes to an understanding of the event.
In her essay, “What is Romanticism?” from The Romantic Manifesto, Ayn Rand observed:
“…[H]aving rejected the element of plot and even of story, the Naturalists concentrated on the element of characterization – and psychological perceptiveness was the chief value that the best of them had to offer….[However], that value shrank and vanished; characterization was replaced with indiscriminate recording and buried under a catalogue of trivia, such as minute inventories of a character’s apartment, clothing and meals. Naturalism lost the attempted universality of Shakespeare or Tolstoy, descending from metaphysics to photography with a rapidly shrinking lens directed at the range of the immediate moment – until the final remnants of Naturalism became a superficial, meaningless, “unserious” school that had nothing to say about human existence.”
That essentially describes “The Path to 9/11”: a shrunken, myopic lens focused on moment-by-moment actions and incidents, examining endless minutiae adding up to non-judgmental conclusions.
The protestations of Clinton, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger, Richard Clarke and others from that disgraceful regime are as irrelevant as the hypothetical objections of the English kings. They ought to feel flattered that they were even “dramatized.” Absent any moral judgment of their actions in the ABC movie, they got off easy with a mere implication of improper behavior. If “Path” had any purpose or point at all, qua “dramatization” it should have been to illustrate the impeachability of their policies and actions.
On a literary level, “The Path to 9/11” is hardly Shakespearean. A good director and cast can bring alive the dullest of Shakespeare’s plays. But director Cyrus Nowrasten’s fudged, “non-partisan” recounting of the events leading up to 9/11 is a passionless yawner. In response to the Clinton gang’s objections and reported threats of legal action for defamation of character, ABC apparently snipped and cut the original version here and there before the national broadcast of the movie. I suspect, however, that the original was just as jumbled and cobbled together as the end product, which was as flat, colorless and undramatic as “Survivor” or “This Old House” or any other “reality” program.
The Clinton gang, blinkered by their pragmatist outlook and policies, should not protest too much, for the altruist-pragmatist policies “dramatized” in “Path” also reflect those same policies as practiced by President George Bush’s administration in his failing “war on terrorism.” One could also cite Ronald Reagan’s failure to properly respond to the murder of hundreds of American Marines in Lebanon by Hezbollah, and Jimmy Carter’s failure to properly respond to the taking of American hostages from our embassy in Tehran. There is more than enough blame to go around when it comes to the politics of lying, betrayal and verisimilitude in our foreign policy.
The sequence of events in “Path” was strung tenuously and haphazardly along the thread of a story line about the actions of FBI agent John P. O’Neill, who, later as director of security for the World Trade Center, died in the South Tower when it collapsed. O’Neill was portrayed by Harvey Keitel; his was the only credible, non-anemic performance in the whole production.
One aspect of “Path” that I found distracting and annoying was the number of long scenes set in Afghanistan and other foreign locales. Most of the dialogue in them was in what I suppose was Urdu, or whatever language Afghans speak, with subtitles. Why the actors couldn’t have delivered their lines in English, I cannot fathom. It was difficult enough to focus on the actors’ expressions and actions without having to also quickly read the subtitles at the same time.
To compensate for the lack of coherence and drama, too many of those Afghanistan scenes were injected with the requisite “shoot ’em up” battles between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. This is the usual resort of a director who makes a movie in which nothing significant happens.
And then a question occurred to me: Why does the U.S. government find it so hard to find and recruit Arabic speakers to serve as translators and decoders of the various dialects for its military and civilian programs, but Hollywood doesn’t?
Much worse – in fact, revolting — was how the 9/11 hijackers and their handlers were portrayed in a neutral light. One would think that when proposing to spend $40 million on a movie, one would want to make a moral point about the villains. No such point was made. A writer or director of a “fictionalized” story must reveal his moral compass; he must express a conclusion about his subject.
Even Shakespeare communicated moral judgments of his kings in his dramatized “chronicles.” Nowrasten’s singular achievement is that he did not reveal a moral compass. Given the bland projection of the villains and the noncommittal portrayal of the “good guys,” it is doubtful he had a moral point to express, or, if he had one, it was repressed. Personally, the actors who portrayed the hijackers and their mentors elicited no emotional response in me. I could just as well have been watching a dramatized exposé of a gang’s plot to rob a series of 7/11 convenience stores.
Given the Naturalist character of “Path,” that was to be expected. There was no point to its production or broadcast, moral or otherwise.
Watching “Path,” I could not help but compare it with other historically based cinematic epics whose subjects were Arabs or jihadists, such as David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” and Basil Dearden’s “Khartoum.” Lean and Dearden’s moral points are clear as a bell, making their films compelling and memorable, whether or not one agrees or disagrees with their points.
The worst thing about “Path,” then, is that it deliberately failed to project the evil of our enemies. The only good thing one could say about the film is that it was an indirect, unintended indictment of the pragmatism and moral relativism that have governed this country’s foreign policy for more than half a century.
One of the most memorable lines from Lean’s “Lawrence” is an implicit rebuttal of the idea of predestination: “Nothing is written.” Nowrasten’s non-judgmental, non-evaluative signature line for “The Path to 9/11” is: “It just happened.”