Tuned In

"The Path to 9/11": The "Reagans" of the Left?

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Start pointing fingers over a national disaster and somebody’s going to get ticked off. The 9/11 Commission learned that first, and now ABC has, having made a miniseries based on the commission’s report. Several former members of the Clinton administration have attacked the miniseries as a partisan hit job. In particular, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright  and former national security adviser Samuel Berger objected to a scene that shows them throwing up bureaucratic obstacles to a plan to capture or kill Osama bin Laden.

The sad if unsurprising result is that a miniseries based on a bipartisan report has become irreversibly politicized: groups and blogs on the left are demanding the show be changed or pulled, conservatives–determined to call day anything the left calls night–are defending and praising it. The show’s critics have attacked its writer, Cyrus Nowrasteh, as a conservative stooge. (Nowrasteh has described himself as libertarian and wrote the TV movie The Day Reagan Was Shot.) And the fight is bound to overshadow what, from my viewing as a TV critic, is a chilling, effective and necessary reminder of what went wrong, and what needs to go right, in the hopefully nonpartisan effort to keep Americans from being mass-murdered.

Does the show (scheduled to air Sunday and Monday nights) focus mainly on the Clinton Administration’s failings more than the Bush Administrations? Yes, for a good reason. The miniseries spans eight years. For all but eight months of that span, Bill Clinton was President. You do the math. And while the miniseries obviously invents dialogue and dramatizes events, the bipartisan commision’s chair himself, Thomas Kean, consulted  and signed off on it.

The irony for me is that, after visiting the production while filming in Toronto and seeing the finished miniseries, I thought that the show would anger, if anyone, Bush supporters. While it’s true that the Clintonistas get more unflattering screen time, the movie’s most horrifying takeaway, as I wrote in TIME, indicts the Bush administration. In an epilogue, the miniseries notes the followup report card of the commission, which slammed Congress and the current administration for failing to implement many of the bipartisan group’s recommendations, most scarily those involving heading off the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. And whatever Nowrasteh’s beliefs, the political comments I heard from actors on the set were largely anti-Bush: Dan Lauria, who plays George Tenet, accused Bush of squandering America’s unity and goodwill after 9/11. "George Bush stood on the rubble and said, ‘Business as usual,’" Lauria told me.

But as with any such controversy, there is the little fight (the actual details of the show) and the big fight (proving that your side has the muscle to get its concerns promoted over the other side’s). Berger and Albright’s personal anger notwithstanding, the larger left may be seeking payback for The Reagans, the CBS biopic that in 2003 conservatives managed to agitate off the network (and onto Showtime) for what they considered an unfair portrait of Ronald Reagan. Back then, I wrote that the controversy, "like most political battles, was mainly about one principle: winning.
You fight to prove you can. To command deference. To convince people
they’re better off messing with the other guy’s icons."

I can’t exactly  blame the blue team: if there’s one thing their red opponents have taught them, it’s that political battles are also fought in the pop-culture trenches. Getting a win on The Path to 9/11 would be a sign of momentum reversal as much as picking up an open Congressional seat. Mainly, though–from the entirely biased point of view of somebody who watched the towers burn–I hope the controversy over how the show portrays the past makes you more eager to watch its potent reminder of what we still need to do to protect our future.