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‘Path to 9/11’ tells a sad, riveting tale

The ABC miniseries is unsparing, and its viewpoint draws criticism.
/ Source: The Associated Press

"The Path to 9/11" will break your heart. It will leave you unnerved, even more than before. And angrier than ever. A five-hour miniseries that dramatizes a decade's worth of events leading up to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, this film is plenty gripping. It doesn't forgo artistry for polemics.

Even so, it drives home, step by step, a message any viewer can understand: The people in charge of keeping you safe failed the nation monumentally. Systemically. Shamefully. And continue to, five years after what should have been a terribly sufficient wake-up call.

Then "The Path to 9/11" leaves the viewer with a chilling coda: a recap of the "report card" issued last December by the 9/11 Commission, which accused the government of failing to protect the nation against another attack, and assigned failing grades in five areas, with a dozen Ds and just one A (actually, A-minus).

That might be the more valuable focus of your concern as clashing voices from the blogosphere embrace or decry "The Path to 9/11" as a right-wing portrayal that slams President Clinton more than George W. Bush.

Whatever its flaws may or may not be, "The Path to 9/11" makes clear there's ample blame to go around. But for those who are game to take a break from finger-pointing, it also displays, with awful power, the larger truth that unites nearly everyone — yet still is given short shrift by policy makers.

Airing commercial-free on ABC Sunday and Monday at 8 p.m. ET (with a 9/11-related followup from ABC News at 10 p.m. Monday), the miniseries claims to draw from a number of sources, including the 2004 report of the 9/11 Commission, which was established to investigate government missteps that led to the attacks.

A massive effortThe scope of “The Path to 9/11” is vast, with 247 speaking roles, a $40 million budget and more than 300 sets (including a seven-story-high base of the World Trade Center), according to the director, David Cunningham (“To End All Wars”), who said he shot 550 hours of film for the project.

If the miniseries has a star, it's Harvey Keitel. He plays FBI counter-terrorism expert John O'Neill, whose dogged efforts to contain the al-Qaida threat were rebuffed by those above him, and who, upon retiring at age 49 to be director of security for the World Trade Center, died two weeks later at the hands of the people he had worked so hard to defeat.

Other familiar actors include Patricia Heaton as Barbara Bodine, Ambassador to Yemen; Donnie Wahlberg as a key undercover CIA agent, and Penny Johnson Jerald ("24") as Condoleezza Rice.

Playing Richard Clarke, the counterterrorism czar to four presidents, Stephen Root ("News Radio") gets one of the film's most stirring speeches during a high-level meeting in Washington. Referring to the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 that killed six, he declares, "We have to imagine ourselves on a future day when we have failed to act and hundreds of Americans lay dead. We have to do something now."

But "no" and "that's the best we can do" are all-too-typical replies heard in the film when anyone proposes heightened efforts.

In a posting on this week, Clarke disputed another scene that had Clinton officials refusing to give the go-ahead to American agents in Afghanistan who were in position to capture Osama bin Laden — then abruptly hanging up the phone on them.

It's a shocking occurrence. Presumably Clarke, now an ABC News consultant, will have a chance to reiterate his argument that it never happened when he appears Monday on ABC News' "9/11/06: Where Things Stand."

Perhaps another guest, Thomas Kean (the former Republican governor of New Jersey, who was chairman of the 9/11 Commission and served as senior consultant for "The Path to 9/11") will defend the film's evenhandedness. Never mind how talk-show host Rush Limbaugh has interpreted the film for his listeners as demonstrating that, in the Clinton era, "we didn't do diddly-squat," while the Bush administration was subsequently "caught up and sort of hamstrung by the existing procedures" and "hasn't had a chance to change them."

ABC responded to the brewing controversy Tuesday only by saying that its miniseries is "a dramatization, not a documentary, drawn from a variety of sources, including the 9/11 Commission report, other published materials and from personal interviews."

The statement also noted how the events that led to 9/11 "originally sparked great debate, so it's not surprising that a movie surrounding those events has revived the debate."

But is this really debate, or does it verge on the partisan infighting that routinely disregards the vital issues themselves?

Cunningham said the film's mission is to spark more than talk.

"We are hoping our show will be a call to action," he said, "so that people are provoked to call their representatives and say, `We need to do different, we need to do more.'"

Likewise, former 9/11 Commission chairman Kean spoke hopefully of the huge audience the film could reach, far surpassing those who read the commission's report.

"If they understand the events, they can understand the recommendations," Kean said, "and we can have the wind behind us in moving this Congress to get more serious in doing some of the things we have to do."

It beats quarreling about a TV film.