Lights, Camera, Exploitation
by J. Hoberman
August 27 - September 2, 2003
That's Our Bush! The President's Re-Election Campaign Kicks Off With a Shameless 9-11 Docudrama
In the end 9-11 turned out to be a made-for-TV movie, or rather, the basis for one-a shameless propaganda vehicle for our superstar president George W. Bush.
The upcoming Showtime feature DC 9/11: Time of Crisis is a signal advance in the instant, ongoing fictionalization of American history, complete with the president fulminating most presidentially against "tinhorn terrorists," decisively employing the word problematic in a complete sentence, selling a rationale for preemptive war, and presciently laying out American foreign policy for the next 18 months. "We start with bin Laden," Bush (played by Timothy Bottoms) tells his cabinet. "That's what the American people expect. . . . So let's build a coalition for that job. Later, we can shape different coalitions for different tasks."
Scheduled for cablecast on September 7, DC 9/11 inaugurates Bush's re-election campaign 50 weeks before the 9-11 Memorial Republican National Convention opens in Madison Square Garden. DC 9/11 also marks a new stage in the American cult of personality: the actual president as fictional protagonist.
There are, of course, precedents. "One of the original aspects of Soviet cinema is its daring in depicting contemporary historical personages, even living figures," Andr Bazin dryly observed in his 1950 essay, "The Myth of Stalin in the Soviet Cinema." It was one of the unique characteristics of Stalin-era Soviet movies that their infallible leader was regularly portrayed, by professional impersonators, as an all-wise demiurge in suitably grandiose historical dramas. So it is with DC 9/11, where documentary footage of the collapsing WTC is punctuated by the pronouncements of Bottoms's Bush.
That Bottoms is reconfiguring his role in the Comedy Central series That's My Bush! (a gross-out sitcom canceled a month before 9-11) provides a uniquely American twist. In the aftermath of the first Iraq war, Bush the elder was brought down in part by Dana Carvey's devastating campaign of ridicule on Saturday Night Live. Drafting the clownish Bottoms effectively preempts that strategy. Indeed, casting a former Bush travesty in the role of the serious Bush only reinforces the telefilm's agenda, namely that the events of September 11 served to render divine Bush's dubious mandate.
A movie that attempted to reconstruct Bush's actual activities on 9-11 would be fascinating, if not entirely heroic. A detailed attempt to account for the president's movements and actions on what he later termed that "interesting day" may be found at the Center for Cooperative Research website (cooperativeresearch.org): Bush had just arrived at a Florida elementary school for a pre-planned 9 a.m. photo op when he was informed that a plane had crashed into the WTC 15 minutes before. Bush would later make the impossible claim that he saw the event televised live. (In early December, the president told an Orlando audience he'd been watching TV that morning and saw "an airplane hit the tower of a-of a-you know . . . and I said, 'Well, there's one terrible pilot.' ") As Secret Service men evidently were watching TV in another classroom, however, news of the second crash reached him almost immediately. Bush's startled response, documented on video for all eternity and seen by millions, is restaged in the movie: As Chief of Staff Andrew Card appears beside Bush and whispers in his ear, the president responds with visible shock and panic (the real Bush was more expressive than Bottoms). Missing from DC 9/11 is the president's next move-picking up a children's book called The Pet Goat.
By then, back in the real D.C., Secret Service men had already burst into Dick Cheney's office and bodily carried the vice president to a secure location in the White House basement. Meanwhile, responding to Press Secretary Ari Fleischer's hastily scrawled instructions ("DON'T SAY ANYTHING YET"), Bush actually remained in the classroom for almost 10 minutes, taking his time thanking the kids and the teachers ("Hoo! These are great readers . . . ") shortly before boarding Air Force One, where he was informed that his plane was the next terrorist target.
DC 9/11 subtly rejiggers these events so that Cheney is hustled into the White House basement only after Bush is aloft-the inference being that the entire leadership was equally dazed and confused, and that relocating Bush was part of the solution rather than one of the problems. According to The Washington Post, Cheney, seconded by Condoleezza Rice, instructed Bush not to return to Washington. Nevertheless, the movie does attempt to deal with the circumstances that had the president largely incommunicado for the rest of the day. According to the Post account, there was little debate on Air Force One-the plane banked sharply and flew south to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where Bush's first official statement was made at 12:36. He appeared hesitant and nervous-as does Bottoms in the movie. Within the hour, Air Force One had taken off for another base, and not until that evening, after eight hours flying from Florida to Louisiana to Nebraska to Washington, did the president address the nation.
The threat to the president's plane was soon recognized as bogus, although it took weeks for the White House to acknowledge it. By September 13, however, presidential image-maker Karl Rove had released his script: "I'm not going to let some tinhorn terrorist keep the president of the United States away from the nation's capital," Bush had supposedly complained, a line further improved in DC 9/11 as "If some tinhorn terrorist wants me, tell him to come and get me! I'll be at home, waiting for the bastard!" Simultaneously, the real Rice was detailing Bush's instant grasp of the situation, explaining that he was the first in his administration to understand the meaning of the events.
This is the story of DC 9/11. Screenwriter and co-executive producer Lionel Chetwynd had access to top officials and staffers, including Bush, Fleischer, Card, Rove, and Donald Rumsfeld-all of whom are played by look-alike actors in the movie (as are Cheney, Rice, John Ashcroft, Karen Hughes, Colin Powell, George Tenet, and Paul Wolfowitz). The script was subsequently vetted by right-wing pundits Fred Barnes, Charles Krauthammer, and Morton Kondracke. Chetwynd, whose vita includes such politically charged movies and telefilms as The Hanoi Hilton, The Heroes of Desert Storm, The Siege at Ruby Ridge, Kissinger and Nixon, and Varian's War, is a prominent Hollywood conservative-a veteran of the 1980 Reagan campaign who, after Bill Clinton's election 12 years later, was recruited by right-wing pop culture ideologue David Horowitz to set up the Wednesday Morning Club ("a platform in the entertainment community where a Henry Hyde can come and get a warm welcome and respectful hearing," as Chetwynd later told The Nation).
Chetwynd bonded with Dubya in March 2001 when, at Rove's suggestion, Varian's War was screened at the White House; Chetwynd was subsequently involved in various post-9-11 Hollywood-Washington conclaves and currently serves Bush as part of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. Shot largely in Toronto, DC 9/11 was eligible for Canadian film subsidies, but it is, in nearly every other sense, an official production.
The Clinton administration was characterized by a cycle of movies featuring Hollywood presidents; a culmination of those fantasies, The West Wing TV series is a virtual presidency set in an ongoing alternate universe. But only twice before DC 9/11 has a reigning president been portrayed in the context of the entertainment machine.
An FDR stand-in appeared briefly in the notorious wartime propaganda epic Mission to Moscow (1943), his back turned discreetly to the camera as he instructs the actor playing Ambassador Joseph Davies to go to Stalin's Soviet Union and "get the hard-boiled facts behind the most dangerous situation in history." Roosevelt reaped no domestic political capital from Mission to Moscow (on the contrary). The real precedent for DC 9/11 is the similarly titled PT 109 (1963), which reconstructed the wartime heroics of then president John F. Kennedy.
While no Hollywood producer ever suggested bringing Dwight Eisenhower's military exploits to the screen, Warner Bros. purchased rights to Robert Donovan's bestselling PT 109 soon after JFK's inauguration. Kennedy's well-publicized escapade as a PT-boat skipper was already an integral part of his image; it was the basis for Kennedy's first congressional campaign in 1946 and figured prominently in the 1960 election. PT 109 was designed to be the greatest campaign poster ever created-in widescreen and living color. The White House naturally requested and received approval of the script; and the president effectively cast the actor who was to play him. JFK initially requested Warren Beatty. (Years later, Beatty slyly maintained-in an interview with John Kennedy Jr.-that it was the first lady who, having seen him in Splendor in the Grass, proposed that he play her husband.) But Beatty was ambivalent. By one account, when Jack Warner suggested he go to Washington to study the president, Beatty insolently replied, "If the president wants me to play him, tell him to come here and soak up some of my atmosphere."
Watching screen tests flown overnight to the White House that March, JFK nixed teen heartthrob Edd "Kookie" Byrnes (the cute parking-lot attendant on the TV detective show 77 Sunset Strip) and Jeffrey Hunter (who played Jesus Christ in the 1961 King of Kings). The best-known candidate was Peter Fonda, whose father, Henry, had narrated a 1960 Kennedy campaign film concerning PT 109-at one point emphatically brandishing a coconut "much like the one" that the future president used to send a message for help. Kennedy tactfully rejected his supporter's son as too young, deciding on the mature-looking Cliff Robertson, who at 36 was a decade older than the man he'd be playing and hence more "presidential."
Would JFK have had the audacity to promote a docudramatization of the Cuban missile crisis as part of his bid for re-election? As political as PT 109, DC 9/11 models Bush on Kennedy's appearances in the 1974 telefilm The Missiles of October, the 1983 miniseries featuring telepresident-to-be Martin Sheen as Kennedy, and particularly, the 2000 feature Thirteen Days-selected for the first official Bush White House screening, with Senator Ted Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy in attendance. But however hagiographic, these were period pieces memorializing a dead leader.
The turgid DC 9/11 would doubtless have been more entertaining with Harrison Ford or Arnold Schwarzenegger or even Ronald Reagan in the role of the president. DC 9/11 is instead the spectacle of Reagan in reverse: Rather than being a professional actor who entered politics, Bush is a politician who has been reconfigured, packaged, and sold as a media star-dialogue included. Indeed, that metamorphosis is the movie's true subject.
The basic Dubya narrative is the transformation of a roistering Prince Hal into a heroic Henry V (as dramatized in the agitprop version of Shakespeare's play staged this summer in Central Park). In DC 9/11, the young Bush-spoiled frat boy and drunken prankster-is subsumed in the image of the initially powerless president. The movie is thus the story of Bush assuming command, first of his staffers (who attest to his new aura with numerous admiring reaction shots) and then the situation. He is the one who declares that "we are at war," who firmly places Cheney (Lawrence Pressman) in his secure location-not once but twice. (To further make the point, Chetwynd has Scott Alan Smith's Fleischer muse that the press refuses to get it: "The Cheney-runs-the-show myth is always going to be with some of them.") Rudy Giuliani, who eclipsed Bush in the days following the attack, is conspicuously absent-or, rather, glimpsed only as a figure on television.
Rumsfeld (impersonated with frightening veracity by Broadway vet John Cunningham) emerges as the Soviet-style positive hero, embodying the logic of history. In the very first scene, he is seen hosting a congressional breakfast, invoking the 1993 attack on the WTC, and warning the dim-witted legislators that that was only the beginning. Rumsfeld is the first to utter the name "Saddam Hussein" and, over the pooh-poohs of Colin Powell (David Fonteno) goes on to detail Iraq's awesome stockpile of WMDs. But there can be only one maximum leader. Increasingly tough and folksy, prone to strategically consulting his Bible, it is Bush who directs Rummy and Ashcroft to think in "unconventional ways." This new Bush is continually educating his staff, instructing Rice in the significance of "modernity, pluralism, and freedom." (As played by Penny Johnson Jerald, the president's ex-wife on the Fox series 24, Condi is a sort of super-intelligent poodle-dogging her master's steps, gazing into his eyes with rapt adoration.)
Ultimately, DC 9/11 is less a docudramatic account of historical events than a legitimizing allegory. In glamorizing a living president, it is an opportunistic piece of political mythmaking-a scenario that effectively bridges the highly irregular maneuvering that brought a popular-vote loser to power in 2000 and the exaggerated, even fabricated, claims with which his regime orchestrated the U.S. invasion of Iraq
Bush's approval rating was hovering around 50 percent on the morning of September 11. Indeed, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden have done so much for Bush's presidency one might reasonably suspect they're being held in a witness protection program. If the Iraq war is integral to America's transformation from republic to empire, then DC 9/11 is part of the process, described by Mark Crispin Miller as Bush's "incarnation as America's Augustus."
Several incidents in the Iraq war-the semi-fictional Saving Private Lynch saga, the made-for-TV toppling of Hussein's statue, the outrageous Top Gun photo op with which Bush announced victory-are ready to be excerpted in Republican Party 2004 campaign propaganda. DC 9/11 is that propaganda: The "Battle Hymn of the Republic" swells as Bush flies into ground zero, where he astonishes even Rove (Allan Royal) by spontaneously vaulting a police barricade to hop on the rubble and grab the microphone. A nearby fireman, compelled to tell the president that he didn't vote for him, swears allegiance, mandating Bush to "find the son of a bitch who did this." Once Bush realizes that "today, the president has to be the country," Rove considers the image problem solved. Bush, he explains, has become commander in chief and taken back "control of his destiny." The climax is Bush's televised, prime-time September 20 speech-a montage of highly charged 9-11 footage that ends with the real-life, now fully authenticated Bush accepting the adulation of Congress as he fingers the talismanic shield worn by a fallen New York police officer.
As long as there are parents and children in this world, people will yearn for the illusion of a wise, selfless, divinely inspired leader. As expressed in DC 9/11, this desire is far less complex than the bizarre wish-fulfillment provided by The West Wing-unless a political miracle occurs and that fantasy materializes with the election of Howard Dean. Both these presidential soap operas offer utopian visions of political leadership. But unlike The West Wing, DC 9/11 gumps a fictionalized hero into real catastrophe to create the myth of a defining moment, and stake its claim on historical truth.
Jump to TO Features for Friday 29 August 2003