- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2003

This week marks the second anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks — and the second consecutive year in which the entertainment industry has struggled to make artistic hay of the seismic event. Pop musicians have fluctuated between full-throated patriotism (Alan Jackson, Toby Keith) and moderate dissent (Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle).

Hollywood has all but ignored the subject, save for a tangential treatment in Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” last year.

Alain Brigand — French, naturally — stepped into the breach, corralling 11 international directors, including the American bad-boy lefty Sean Penn, for “September 11,” an anthology of controversial short films about the impact of the attacks on different cultures around the globe.

Each filmlet is 11 minutes and nine seconds long — as in 11/9, the European day-and-month sequence.

“September 11,” part of Filmfest D.C. earlier this year, began a one-week engagement at the Avalon Theatre yesterday and will air on the Trio cable network Thursday night at 9.

Paralleling the divergent attitudes of the music industry, the Showtime network has unwittingly furnished the patriotic answer to the irony-laden back talk of the “September 11” shorts.

The premium movie channel will premier “DC 9/11: Time of Crisis” tomorrow night at 8. It is for motion pictures what Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” was for pop country — confident in its morality, enthusiastically American.

Directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith and written by the conservative Lionel Chetwynd, the made-for-cable movie is a dramatic portrayal of the Bush administration’s response to the attacks.

It follows the president and his closest aides over a nine-day arc, from the moment they hear the fateful news up to Mr. Bush’s Sept. 20 address to a joint session of Congress.

The Showtime movie, alas, is far from good art.

In its unblinking low-art literalism, “DC 9/11” sounds like the minutes of a government agency meeting, and its look-alike cast — led by Timothy Bottoms as President Bush, John Cunningham as Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Lawrence Pressman as Vice President Richard B. Cheney — barely rises above the level of dramatic re-enactors.

Mr. Bottoms is less talented than Will Farrell at impersonating Mr. Bush, and his Texas colloquialisms (“All right, you wanna shake up them generals? Go ahead, push ‘em”) sound flatly Yankee-ish.

There are a few smart depictions of conflict between Mr. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell (David Fonteno) over whether the war on terrorism should include taking out Saddam Hussein.

Karl Rove, the president’s senior adviser, appears oddly villainous as a machinating wizard concerned exclusively with the president’s political image.

Those are about the only moments, however, that couldn’t have been written by the White House public relations office, in a repetitive script previewed by conservative columnists Charles Krauthammer and Fred Barnes.

The George W. Bush of “DC 9/11” appears rattled only once — at a public appearance on his northward trek through the Midwest on the morning of September 11 — and is otherwise unfailingly decisive, always firmly in command and a pious reader of his Bible.

This may indeed be the truth, but “DC 9/11” makes the president seem robotic in his fortitude — without foibles, doubts or other chinks of human character.

Is there no happy medium between hagiography and ignorant dissent?

To be fair to “September 11” — or “11‘09‘01,” as it was known outside these borders — it isn’t uniformly anti-American.

The French director Claude Lelouch turned in a short told from the perspective of a deaf woman; it’s a respectful treatment and, literally, a long moment of silence.

Mexico’s Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu took a similarly unconventional approach to his 11-minute film. Instead of eschewing sound, his picture is almost entirely sightless — except for flickering images of World Trade Center victims jumping to their deaths to escape the torturing heat of burning jet fuel.

The blackness of Mr. Inarritu’s short gives way to shimmering white, ending with a thematic summation in Arabic script — “Does God’s light guide us or blind us?” — an indictment of the suicide martyr’s mentality.

Even Mr. Penn’s contribution isn’t so repugnant. He directs Ernest Borgnine as a lonely, senile man pining for his dead wife, oblivious to the carnage of September 11.

Other people were hurting that day, too, for various reasons, Mr. Penn reminds us — true, as far it goes, but a trivial fact, given the enormity of the attacks.

Conversely, the United Kingdom’s Ken Loach draws a tired analogy, the same one touted recently by novelist Isabel Allende on a recent promotional appearance in the District, between the attacks on New York and Washington and the CIA-sponsored overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile on September 11, 1973 — as if the acts of the al-Qaeda hijackers were America’s just deserts for past sins.

The Egyptian Youssef Chahine lodges a similar complaint but from an Arabist, rather than Chilean, perspective.

The Israeli director Amos Gitai asserts in his short film that the September 11 attacks overshadowed the grim, everyday realities of suicide bombers in Israel — a notion that was laughable then and is even more so today.

What seems clear from the French production is that those who had a beef with America on Sept. 10, 2001, are nursing the same grudge through the prism of September 11.

In that sense, what these directors are offering is not analysis or reflection or constructive dissent but old polemics with an incongruous new twist.

“DC 9/11: Time of Crisis” is a refreshing “nothing but the facts, ma’am” look at high-level decision-making behind closed doors but is useless as a drama and takes pride in its lack of exegesis.

Its inherent flaw is most apparent when real-life footage of the Pentagon and Lower Manhattan is intercut with the flaccid re-enactment scenes.

At two years removed, nothing jars like the real thing. Nothing wakens the impulses of compassion, sympathy and sorrow or sparks righteous outrage like the newsreel images we have seen a hundred times over.

They’re still as transfixing as ever and need no pop-music soundtrack or high-style French art-movie tropes to adorn them.

We’ll have to continue our wait for a work of popular art that enriches our understanding of September 11, 2001.

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