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Commentary: Reaction to 9/11

Wow! That was my reaction to ABC's Path to 9/11.

ABC put a screenful of disclaimer/warning before Sunday's first part of the two-part look at the roots of 9/11, telling everyone that "for dramatic and narrative purposes, "it was "not a documentary," that it had composite characters, fictionalized scenes and dialog, and compressed time lines.

Taking such liberties was a risky thing to do with the events of 9/11, but it worked powerfully for me.

Despite reports that the show would be edited to lighten up on missed opportunities under the Clinton watch, the movie's portrayal of administration officials cannot have been edited much and hardly seemed to pull any punches or generalize the indictment. There were still names and faces we know--quite a ringer for Madeleine Albright--saying things that were troubling. National Security Advisor Sandy Berger was still portrayed as having failed to make a crucial call, punctuated by the comment from an ally--though an unsavory one--we wound up undercutting: "Are there any men in left in Washington, or are they all cowards." Democrats can't be happy with the message that paying too much attention to rights and lives was a form of weakness that undercut our will to kill. But one thing the movie emphasizes was the number of bombings and attacks that arguably should have telegraphed danger signs with more urgency.

Monica Lewinsky is evoked and shown, with the character of then ABC correspondent John Miller pointing out that Republicans and other administration critics were suggesting President Clinton's attack on a pharmaceutical plant thought to be making chemical weapons was a diversion from his impeachment troubles.

There was also a scene of a Taliban attack and grisly bloodshed that cut immediately to Clinton officials. And a powerful scene with an agent blaming them for the Nairobi bombing following the aborted attempt to get Bin Laden.

It was as advertised, tough on Clinton people and the president himself as asleep at the switch or too indecisive at key points, though of course it is with the 20/20 hindsight of working backwards from the catastrophe of 9/11.

I don't know how accurate the facts are, which is key to all this, but the production values were first-rate. The music by John Cameron was evocative, particularly the opening theme of violins and piano.

The cinematography was powerful, too, with officialdom looking a bit washed out and fluorescent, while the Middle East was brown with occasional explosions of color in textiles or children's toys. The Philippines was all garish neon.

ABC made the movie and there was plenty of ABC in the show, most prominently John Miller, who covered the terrorism in the region, interviewed Bin Laden--who apparently at this time was Ussama, not Osama--and shows up frequently throughout the show. Seeing the Twin Towers in flashback standing tall and solid was jarring, as was the violence, and the recreation of the 1993 bombing, as was the fraction of a second at the beginning of the film when, showing the fatal planes about to take off on Sept.11, when a little girl is buckled into her airplane seat. Nightline did a special show afterwards on the hunt for Bin Laden, ironically on the same night Ted Koppel elsewhere was to be debuting a doc and town meeting for Discovery, talking about terrorism. Do you believe the U.S. will win the war on terrorism in the next 10 years, Koppel's who asked in a poll, with 69% of their respondents saying no.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.