ABCƒ?TMs Path to 9/11: A Controversial Trail

By Jesse Sawyer

Perhaps more than any event in US history, the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 more closely resembled a Hollywood blockbuster than anything we could expect to occur in reality. The instant that first plane crashed into the WTC tower, it crashed its way into a disjunctive space in the American consciousness, one whose locus lay somewhere between the limits of the fantastic and the bounds of what we actually believed could happen. For this reason, the attacks will always be more than themselves, carrying a surplus meaning that allows for a dangerous re-appropriation of their symbolic potency, a fact that has been made only too clear in the five years that have followed, one fraught with half-justified wars, assaults on domestic freedoms, legitimization of torture, and a devastating paradigmatic shift in mainstream thought.

Like any major event whose implications are infinitely nebulous, the 9/11 attacks can only achieve a totality of meaning through their incorporation into narrative. That is to say, by linking the events to a series of other events, the attacks and the events that precede and follow them interrelate in such a way that they appear to make some sort of sense. This act is always ideological, of course, and one only needs to look to the way in which the Bush administration has attempted to join the attacks with the Iraqi war to see this. The attempt to use 9/11 as a causal agent for the invasion of Iraq works twofold; it recasts 9/11 as a symbol of global terrorism, regardless of specific attackers, and it justifies Iraq as a morally and politically necessary reaction to this symbolic injury.

The most recent, and thus far, most sweeping, attempt to explicitly narrativize the events of September 11th comes in the form of ABC’s ‘docudrama’ The Path to 9/11, which aired this week on the eve and day of the five-year anniversary of the attacks, and drew an estimated thirteen million viewers. The series aired amidst attacks from both sides of the political spectrum, although most of the controversy centered on the series’ perceived anti-Clinton bias and what many viewed as neo-con chest thumping. What’s far more important, however, than simple red versus blue political stumping, is the way in which the series recasts 9/11 formally, how it builds dramatic fiction out of factual circumstances, and ultimately, how its status as a dramatization makes it the only way to create a sensible truth out of real events. The narrative of Path to 9/11 rests largely on the techniques of disparate narrative threads (think 2000’s Traffic, etc.) and a small gaggle of main characters whose characterization imbues them with symbolic function. Harvey Keitel stars as John O’Neill, the head of counter-terrorism for the FBI who eventually finds himself quitting due to feelings of bureaucratic impotence and internal nuisances. He follows this position up as the Head of Security for the WTC towers, and winds up the object of a cruel poetic irony, literally crushed by the very forces he spends his life fighting. As a character he is easily identified with, genuine in his motives and exterior to the red tape inner workings of his superiors. As a symbol, he represents the failure of intelligence and bureaucracy in the eight years prior to 9/11. His death is the death of any preventive potential we may have had, and as his son looks on through the rubble and debris of the towers, we cannot help but adopt his gaze, one that embodies the failures of the past and the supposedly renewed need for vigilance. As his father repeatedly imparts to whoever might be listening: “We are in a new kind of war.”

Keitel’s character intertwines with Donnie Wahlberg’s “Kirk,” a CIA operative who represents everything that could go right on the ground. “Kirk” functions as a focal character to Northern Alliance commander Massoud, and through this focalization, we react to Massoud as “Kirk” does, namely as a friend, ally, and admirer. When Massoud is assassinated, his death, like that of John O’Neill, is the death of a certain potential, the end result of what O’Neill later calls “the death of ten thousand paper cuts,” the slow, steady failure of bureaucracy to react to the situation at hand, which, narratively, the viewer always already knows will lead to that ultimate tragic end.

The filmmakers are shrewd in their attempts to obscure the biases at work in their formal decision-making. The director, David L. Cunningham, has ties to evangelical filmmaking and youth groups. And yet the explicit content of the series never climbs the steps to any sort of pulpit, instead using formal devices to convey the subtleties of its message. Near the end of the series, the camera holds a long poetic take of a single street sign swept in the ash and detriment of the towers’ fall. It should be taken as conspicuous that the street is called Church Street.

This formal obfuscation functions on nearly every level of the filmmaking process. Particularly interesting is the role of music in the film. Nearly every music track, whether it signifies “Middle Eastern” tonality or adrenaline-pumping dramatic flair, the filmmakers are careful to assign it a diegetic source. What at first seems to be an extra-diegetically soundtracked build-up to a raid on a terrorist headquarters is in the next shot revealed to be the product of a neighbor’s cranked-up boombox. In this subtle fashion, the filmmaker attempts to distance himself from his own formal elements. This parlays the appearance of objectivity and effaces the filmmaker’s prints from the work, an especially ideologically charged move in a film that claims a lack of bias as a basis for its successful consumption.

The miniseries succeeds and fails at once. Interestingly enough, its biggest success may come in the form of its (intended) interaction with the intrusion of real events. I’m talking, of course, about the calculated broadcast of President Bush’s 9/11 commemoration speech at the apex of the miniseries’ denouement. This collision, between fictionalized reality and ‘real’ reality is the perfect embodiment of the series’ function within the political landscape. It is precisely the battleground of mainstream thought’s competing dialectic regarding the 9/11 attacks. We are at a position of negotiation in terms of what narrative we will adopt in understanding the events leading up to and following that date. ABC has accomplished formally what the world is still attempting in terms of (real) discourse. While their series is flawed (and, just to settle the issue, obviously biased towards a neo-conservative policy), it should be taken as an important Rosetta stone of our era, as well as a still-living component in the ongoing placement of 9/11’s symbolic weight. Thirteen million people spent two nights and six hours adopting this narrative, and its potency should not be underestimated.