9/11 Series: Clinton vs. ABC

Former president Bill Clinton is blasting the ABC 9/11 docudrama "The Path to 9/11" for being inaccurate and unfair. You've got to love the irony of that. Wasn't he the guy who hired Hollywood filmmakers to create a campaign biopic of his life? Sure, "The Path to 9/11" makes up dialogue, invents scenes and creates a composite character or two, but sometimes you have to craft the facts in a certain way to tell a complicated story. Just like sometimes you have to reconsider what the definition of "is" is when you don't want people to know you've had an affair with a White House intern.

But let's remove Clinton, and politics, from the situation. Does the president make a fair point? Is "The Path to 9/11" unfit for broadcast because it plays fast and loose with history? After all, "The Path to 9/11" claims to be a balanced and detailed account of the government's decadelong fight against extremist Islamic terrorists. It actually starts with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and tries to connect the many and disparate lines that became the blueprint for the attacks in 2001. The movie's theme is that government officials in two administrations had numerous opportunities to stop the various players—from the 19 hijackers to Osama bin Laden himself—but they bungled the job because they were overly concerned with political appearances and petty interagency feuds.

Clinton's major beef is over a scene where his security adviser Richard Clarke (played by Stephen Root), stops the CIA from assassinating bin Laden out of concern that the president wants to avoid any political damage should the mission go awry. The movie then cuts to real footage of Clinton testifying that "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." The obvious implication is that Clinton ducked pulling the trigger because he was too preoccupied with his political future, especially since it was undermined by his own personal drama. (And if that implication isn't obvious enough, the camera immediately cuts from Clinton to a suggestive shot of the looming phallic Washington monument).

Was Clinton too distracted to act? Maybe. Is it plausible to suggest that? Certainly to some people, including the filmmakers. And frankly, that should be enough. "The Path to 9/11" isn't a documentary; it's a docu- drama . Part of the idea of fictionalizing historical events is to tell a story, to get at a deeper truth than a documentary could. After all those Oliver Stone movies—not to mention dozens of "reality" TV shows—viewers know the difference between real history and an entertainment that uses history as its subject. If the Reagans can survive the snarky look at their relationship posited by the mini-series "The Reagans," certainly Clinton can survive "The Path to 9/11," too. This isn't a history lesson. It's a television show.

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That said, ABC shouldn't be let off the hook entirely for "The Path to 9/11." The mini-series itself—which, by the way, is hugely engrossing and more than a little scary—should stand on its own. But the network's own PR for the movie opened the door to Clinton's complaints. The filmmakers, including producer Marc Platt and director David Cunningham, have been very outspoken about how "The Path to 9/11" is steeped in history. They say it's based primarily on the government's own 9/11 Commission report.

Former New Jersey governor Tom Kean, who co-chaired the commission, was a senior consultant on the movie and has personally vouched for the movie's accuracy in recent months. "This is the story of how it happened," Kean said at a news conference in July. Added Platt: "Our ambitions and our goals and our standards were all about accuracy." ABC was so impressed with the "accuracy" of the movie, it has planned to send it to schools as a teaching tool. What's more, the network will show the movie with no interruptions, which seems like a tacit way of saying this movie is too important, too truthful to be sullied with something as phony as a commercial. Pompous? Oh, yeah.

And now that pomposity has come back to bite them in the behind. If ABC hadn't acted as if "The Path to 9/11" was the definitive word on the events leading up to 9/11, perhaps the public officials depicted in it, including former national-security adviser Sandy Berger and former secretary of State Madeleine Albright, wouldn't be complaining about inaccuracies. You can't sell your movies as "extraordinarily educational," which is how Platt has described it, then throw on the mantle of fiction when someone whose life was fictionalized complains.

The fact is, networks are always chicken when it comes to political pressure. After all, CBS got so nervous about "The Reagans" that it made sister network Showtime air it. Even though ABC says it's standing by its movie now, I wouldn't be surprised if some of the most egregiously fictionalized scenes—including one where Berger slams down the phone on a CIA operative—were excised when the mini-series hits the air. Frankly, the Monica Lewinsky references—there are actually just two of them—do come across as gratuitous and semipolitical and could easily be edited out, too. There's plenty of blame to go around in "The Path to 9/11" without them.

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9/11 Series: Clinton vs. ABC | News