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resolute stance he strikes in the film looks outdated.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
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
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