Out of a Clear Blue Sky
Everyone wants to own the story of John O’Neill. Liberals and conservatives alike freely invoke the now-famous FBI agent in order to make the case that the other side ignored warnings of an impending terrorist attack. O’Neill emerged in 2002 as one of the heroes of 9/11, but his party affiliation isn’t widely known, making him handy fodder for partisan exploitation. And he’s no longer around to correct the record. In one of 9/11’s many head-shakingly bizarre coincidences, he left the FBI and took a job as head of security at the World Trade Center a mere month before the attacks, and lost his life when the first tower fell.
Using O’Neill’s tragic story, and 9/11 more generally, as a tool for financial or political gain appears a scurrilous act of the first order. ABC’s airing of the docudrama The Path to 9/11 without commercial interruption may have recreated some of on-air urgency of 11 September 2001 (here ABC had company, as CNN, for instance, broadcast its original uninterrupted coverage of the 9/11 attacks in real time on its website), but it also potentially preempted criticism that the network was exploiting the tragedy for sponsorship revenue.
But Path to 9/11 was also accused of having a political slant. In the days before it aired, the rumors about the movie’s partisan hackery had flown so fast and thick, it didn’t seem possible the movie could be as bad as people were saying. In fact, it’s worse. Path to 9/11 is a five-hour infomercial for the Republican party. Its defenders claim it criticizes both the Clinton and Bush administrations equally, but this simply isn’t true. Time and again, the Clinton team is ridiculed, while Bush and his people (with the exception of Condoleezza Rice, played here by Penny Johnson Jerald, and of late, largely fallen out of favor with conservatives) are shown as serious-minded and competent.
Director David Cunningham and writer/producer Cyrus Nowrasteh borrow from a familiar playbook. Movies with similarly coarse political agendas, such as John Irvin’s Hamburger Hill (1987), Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down (1993) or William Friedkin’s Rules of Engagement (2000), conjure doggedly uni-dimensional characters who preach ethics with a Cliff’s Notes-style simplicity. The motives and actions of the heroes transcend reproach; the bad guys are so inscrutably evil, they come across as the beady-eyed mole people in B-grade science fiction movies.
It’s no coincidence that the protagonists in Path to 9/11 follow conservative ideals and the body-snatched antagonists recite such liberal pabulum as “respect for human life.” The moviemakers make no secret of their personal leanings: Cunningham is lately of the University of Nations, a film school devoted to promoting the conservative Christian perspective, and in 2005, Nowrasteh appeared with right-wing movie columnist Michael Medved on a panel called, “How Conservatives Can Lead Hollywood’s Next Paradigm Shift.” Their backgrounds make their focus on John O’Neill seem a natural choice. His unblemished reputation allows him to fit him readily into a world of moral absolutes.
O’Neill (Harvey Keitel) steps up boldly to every challenge in Path to 9/11. He’s smart-suited, square-jawed, and certain about the threat bin Laden poses, but weak-willed Democrats stymie him at every turn. “War is about killing the enemy and destroying his property,” says the fictional CIA agent Kirk (Donnie Wahlberg) after another request to attack the terrorists is rejected. “How do you win a law-and-orderly war?” O’Neill replies, “You don’t.”
To underscore the difference between O’Neill and his terrorist-coddling foils, the film provides frequent locker room-style conjecture about the testicular fortitude of the various players. Ramzi Yousef has “balls of steel” and O’Neill is warned that “Your nuts will shrivel up like they were freeze-dried,” to which he responds, “Not these nuts.” And when George Tenet (Dan Lauria) finally acts rightly, O’Neill notes, “About time he showed some cajones.” History, however, mounts a serious challenge to the idea that war can only be won by men (or women) with big balls. Such reasoning led MacArthur to escalate the war in Korea, Johnson and Nixon to quagmire in Indochina, and (it’s now becoming evident) Bush 43 and the neoconservatives to the endless attrition in Iraq.
This leads me to Path to 9/11‘s greatest affronts. In the first hour, the FBI extradites a suspected terrorist from Egypt and questions him about his terrorist ties. They assure him that “We’re not going to torture you,” but refer repeatedly to his treatment at the hands of the Egyptians. “Did it hurt?”, they ask coldly, as the perspiring, terrified prisoner flashes back to the agony he underwent. At last he tells the FBI what they need to know. Though the practice didn’t formally exist at the time, the message to audiences in 2006 is clear: extraordinary rendition works.
Cunningham and Nowrasteh’s approach to the war in Afghanistan runs along a similar vein. In their version of history, the Northern Alliance—who in reality locks prisoners in metal boxes until they die of exposure, peddles drugs, and, it’s believed, practices systematic rape as an instrument of warfare—becomes unimpeachable sweethearts. Alliance commander Massoud (Mido Hamada) is concerned not only with Afghanistan’s welfare, but also, incredibly, that of the U.S.A. (Osama bin Laden is fixing to execute a major attack, he tells Kirk, and “America must prepare.” It’s a wonder the movie didn’t CGI a misty halo over his head.) When the al Qaeda assassinates Massoud with a bomb disguised as a TV camera, it’s presented as tragedy. “God has abandoned us!” Massoud’s number two man howls, cradling his body in his arms. “Prince Massoud has been martyred!”
The assassination opens the way for more menace, of the religious sort. Bin Laden, we’re told, wishes to convert the world to Islam, though how he plans to realize his ambitious plan to establish a Caliphate with a few thousand recruits in the Afghan mountains is never clarified. A judge scolds an unrepentant Ramzi Yousef, “Your only god is death.” On the eve of 9/11, Mohamed Atta describes a conversation he had with a Christian priest in his youth. “He spoke of… turning the other cheek,” Atta explains. “I told him that I do much more for my God. I wage war for Him.”
Their true-believing opposite is found in John O’Neill. Theistic imagery abounds as well, much of it quite hammy, such as the cloud of dust that spreads over lower Manhattan and envelops a sign for “Church Street” after the towers fall. Throughout, the movie offers frequent shots of sunlight prisming in a blue sky, and though in part these augur the clear, sunny morning of 9/11, their primary effect becomes clear at the movie’s conclusion, when O’Neill dies on the crumbling stairway of the South Tower. A friend calls him on his cell phone and as his voice mail answers, the camera drifts skyward, to a bright light that consecrates his beatification in the white illumination of heaven.
Here the skeptic should be reminded that many evangelical Christians share with their Islamic fundamentalist counterparts a fascination with martyrs—and that the longest, most pointless wars in human history have been fought in the name of religion. If Path to 9/11‘s most egregious move is to condone inhuman conduct on the part of our government, its most dangerous is to reframe 9/11 as a salvo in a war between the pious Christian and the nonbeliever. Even as the movie purports to plot a course to Godly peace through firepower, it actually helps to clear a path to the bloodiest of possible worlds, one in which we’re all at risk of martyrdom.