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Rewriting Bush

I had no idea how articulate President Bush could be until I watched DC 9/11: Time of Crisis, the hagiographic docudrama on Showtime that purports to give an inside view of the White House in the days following the most audacious terrorist attack in modern history. “This post–Cold War world in which we are the only real power left standing isn’t any nicer than the one that preceded it,” the commander in chief muses at one point. “Weakness is despised. Strength is admired. Decisiveness, action, is vital.”

And not a Teleprompter in sight!

Somehow, such eloquence doesn’t seem quite Dubya-like. (“Wanted, dead or alive,” as he said of Osama bin Laden, is more his style.) Equally unconvincing is the way, in the days following the attack, Bush masters not only the conflicting voices of his own cabinet (Powell, Rumsfeld) but the intellectual terrain as well, spotting instantly with Great Leader–like acumen that the page of history has turned and we are in a new era that demands “unconventional” thinking. Overnight, the dim pupil turns into the wise ruler, and his ascent is mirrored in the eyes of his admiring cabinet appointees. “What a great president he’s turned out to be!” is the unspoken message emanating from everyone around him.

DC 9/11 was directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith (Leprechaun 3 and 4) and written by Lionel Chetwynd (Moses, The Heroes of Desert Storm), a Hollywood conservative who surely hopes it will help Bush’s reelection bid. From a propaganda viewpoint the film is poorly timed, however. With Bush climbing down from his go-it-alone position on Iraq, and once again delivering himself into the duplicitous hands of Chirac and Schroeder at the U.N., the resolute stance he strikes in the film looks outdated. “I want to inflict pain,” he tells Tony Blair in one scene, meaning he’s going to get tough on terrorists. But right now in the real world it’s the president, not the terrorists, who is saying, “Ouch.”

The image of Bush the cowboy-ignoramus, Bush the speech-mangling cretin of “misunderestimate” and “Is our children learning?” is now so powerful that it completely colors one’s perception of the man. In a scene early on in the film, he is seen taking notes while on the phone. “Oh, you mean he can write?” I thought to myself. And whenever he delivered a prepared speech, what I was really interested in seeing was the army of Teleprompters, backup Teleprompters, aides holding up signs, speech therapists mouthing pronunciations (nuke-LEE-ar) that I imagined must surely be rushed into service whenever Bush addresses the nation. (Of course, there’s very little of that.) And yet I sympathize with Bush far more than I do with the kind of silver-tongued sophisticate whose idea of fighting militant Islam is to sit around a table at the U.N. and condemn it in the hope that, magically, it will just disappear.

So how should an actor portray him? Particularly during those pivotal days when, in response to al-Qaeda’s attack, he went from being a seemingly timid and indifferent figure to the most aggressively outspoken president in recent American history? Well, it depends on the script, of course. Timothy Bottoms, who plays Bush, has already taken the satirical approach (on the short-lived Comedy Central series That’s My Bush!) This time, he works in a more flattering mode. And though he lacks Dubya’s beady eyes and buttoned-down mouth, he has a dopey, slightly hangdog expression not inappropriate to a man who was an angry, alcoholic failure until the age of 40. What he misses is the steely grace of Bush’s movements, the determination etched in every gesture.

If this were 2013 rather than 2003, this film would be a dull but generally unexceptionable production. But with its subject still in office, and the next election looming, it can only be described as being in very poor taste. 9/11 deserves better. I don’t want to see scenes of the president in bed with his wife, no matter how decorous. Nor do I want real-life footage of a still-smoking Ground Zero to be accompanied by choral music better suited to a religious ceremony, as it is here. It’s cheesy, kitschy and opportunistic. This desire to sanctify a political event — to turn it into a campaign commercial, in effect — is a good example of why so many people find American culture repugnant.

The other actors involved in this unfortunate project — John Cunningham as Donald Rumsfeld, Penny Johnson Jerald as Condoleeza Rice, etc.) acquit themselves honorably, but this is a film that should never have been made, or at least not now. Though it’s fascinating to see the White House at work in such dramatic circumstances (Chetwynd interviewed Bush as well as several members of his staff while researching the project, and no doubt the overall presentation is roughly accurate), it’s a job that could have been done by a real documentary, not a hokey docudrama trying to sell its man to the electorate.

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