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Showtime for 9/11

You thought it was too soon for a made-for-TV movie about the nation's worst tragedy? Think again.

By Richard von Busack

When terror comes knocking, this country's rocking. After receiving the news on that fateful day, Sept. 11, 2001, a still-new president--and son of a president--prepares to strike back in these words: "If some tinhorn terrorist wants me, tell him to come and get me! I'll be at home! Waiting for the bastard!"

Soon, those of us who have cable TV will be waiting for not a bastard but President George W. Bush, as played by his regular impersonator, Timothy Bottoms, to utter these words onscreen. For those of you who circle programs ahead of time in TV Guide, this made-for-Showtime film will be broadcast Sept. 7, just in time for the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and right about the time Bush starts earnestly renewing his bid for re-election.

DC 9/11: Time of Crisis, the title as of presstime, supersedes the earlier, simpler title DC 9/11, another example of the trend of disguising films as MCs. Early reports featured the working title The Big Dance--a bit flip, considering how many souls waltzed with the Reaper that fateful day two long years ago. But since that time, the project has taken the turn of a serious undertaking.

DC 9/11: Time of Crisis will follow the attack from the Washington, D.C., perspective, beginning with the attacks and ending with George W. Bush's speech of revenge on Sept. 20. In what some might see as a disturbing blend of documentary and dramatic re-enactments, actual news footage of the Twin Towers and Pentagon attacks will be woven in with the drama of Bush's flights around the country on the fateful day and the comments he made as he went.

As Bottoms plays Bush, he'll be a president in the Jerry Bruckheimer/Michael Bay Armageddon, Bad Boys, Pearl Harbor movie mode, walking tall, kicking ass, taking names and prone to utter impromptu words of hope that stop the camera in its tracking shots. Douglas Saunders of the Toronto Globe and Mail, who saw the leaked script, noted dialogue in which Bush's fiery words aboard Air Force One scare a trembling assistant:

"But Mr. President ..."

The president, brusquely interrupting him. "Try commander-in-chief. Whose present command is: Take the president home!"

Bush's Man

DC 9/11: Time of Crisis may represent pure Americana, but it was filmed in Canada for budgetary reasons--and tax breaks. This explains why the story of its production broke in the Great White North before being picked up by the Washington Post. Three directors are credited so far on the Internet Movie Database, including the father and son team of Daniel and Donald Petrie (Donald recently directed How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days). Earlier, sources were crediting Brian Trenchard-Smith as the director. As the hyphen suggests, Trenchard-Smith is British. His credits include an ecumenical cluster of films: the Christian movie Megiddo: The Omega Code 2, the TV movie The Happy Face Murders and an episode of Silk Stalkings.

This unabashedly pro-Bush endeavor is the project of writer/producer Lionel Chetwynd, a naturalized American citizen, who, it's worth noting, previously did a TV miniseries on P.T. Barnum. Chetwynd is a five-time Writers Guild of America award nominee who has scripted everything from a film biography of Anwar Sadat to the story for Robert Altman's most unwatchable film, Quintet. He also wrote The Hanoi Hilton, a revisionist Vietnam story of 1987, but his most serious contribution to the world of film was his adaptation of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.

In addition to being a noteworthy scriptwriter, a British army vet and a credentialed lawyer, Chetwynd is also one politically connected individual. The writer/producer got help in his 9/11 film from George W. Bush himself, including an hour of face time to learn what Bush had done and said in the week after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Earlier this summer, on July 9, at a Television Critics Association press conference unveiling the news of DC 9/11: Time of Crisis, Chetwynd said that he'd vetted the script for a panel of conservative bigfeet, including Charles Krauthammer and Fred Barnes, to remove any offensive moments.

Chetwynd also claims also to have received help from Bush handler Karl Rove and White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., whom some may remember for his Bartlett's Quotations moment that appeared in an article by Elizabeth Bumiller in The New York Times. Asked to comment on the campaign to sell the Iraq attack to the public after Labor Day 2002, he replied, "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."

Chetwynd is also one of the 24 members of the President's Council for the Arts and Humanities. His fellow members are such figures as Gloria Estefan's husband, as well as Dixie "Julia Sugarbaker" Carter, Phil Roman, an ex-animation producer for The Simpsons and the Portola Valley-based venture capitalist Burton J. McMurtry.

Probably most notably, Chetwynd is a founder of the Wednesday Morning Club, a group dedicated to countering liberal tendencies in Hollywood. The name originates from the Wednesday morning following the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. Since then, Chetwynd and prominent L.A. Republicans have gathered at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills for meetings hosted by leftist-gone-right David Horowitz, the former editor of Ramparts and now a columnist for Salon.

Whoever's responsible for the Wednesday Morning club, the omelettes must be special. So far, these coffee klatches have drawn such guest speakers as William Bennett, Judge Robert Bork, the ever-elusive Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich and that newly fledged hawk, columnist Christopher Hitchens. The Nation's columnist Alexander Cockburn refers to the Wednesday Morning Club as "a front" for Horowitz's Center for the Study of Popular Culture, a handsomely endowed, L.A.-based conservative think tank.

Another of Horowitz's projects was the Committee on Media Integrity, a pressure group aiming to cut funding for public television because of liberal bias. This led to a partnership between Chetwynd and Horowitz in a proposed TV series titled National Desk (a.k.a. Reverse Angle), which was designed to counterpoint PBS's Frontline series. In July 2002, Horowitz sued Chetwynd, his former partner, for allegedly forcing him out of their production company, Whidbey Island Films.

Horowitz's pugnaciousness is well known to his readers. He was the child of Communist activists and a supporter of the Black Panthers who did the political version of a moonshiner's turn. He is considered an unofficial adviser to George W. Bush, who has publicly endorsed Horowitz's books. Those looking for a charge of good anti-left paranoia need go no further than CSPC.org's website, which claims to expose the Ford Foundation as "The Biggest Funder of the Left." The illustration is a photo of some stout swarthy fellows burning an American flag, presumably with matches and gasoline supplied by a grant from the Ford Foundation.

Yankee Doodle Doofus

Made with the almost complete cooperation of the president, DC 9/11: Time of Crisis is the first nondocumentary feature film lionizing a sitting president in 40 years. The last would have been 1963's PT 109, which recounted the wartime adventures of John F. Kennedy, based on his memoirs. Since Kennedy was a war veteran who never got over his injuries, the dramatization of his past career may be a different case than Bush's conduct on Sept. 11. It's a case of proven heroism vs. still-fresh actions and reactions that Americans remain divided about.

It helps to remember that Kennedy is credited as the first president to have won an election because of television. The much less telegenic Richard Nixon lost to Kennedy narrowly in 1960, perhaps because of his sweaty and nervous presence before the camera. Before Kennedy's time, in a traditional Hollywood film, a sitting president was rarely shown onscreen. There are exceptions: in the wartime musical Yankee Doodle Dandy, a military officer named Capt. Jack Young played FDR in a scene where George M. Cohan (James Cagney) received a medal.

Since Kennedy, every president has had to learn how to act and react for the TV camera. We're accustomed to think of presidents as stars of long-running shows as much as politicians. Various examples of post-presidential appearances on TV and movies occur every place from made-for-TV Eisenhower biopics to the comedy Dick, with Kirsten Dunst, lampooning the long-retired Nixon (Dan Hedaya).

Fictional portrayals abound: the Prisoner of Zenda-ish comedy Dave, The American President, TV's The West Wing, not to mention Primary Colors, with John Travolta as a thinly veiled Bill Clinton type, presented as a donut-breath skirt chaser. The uneasiness of the smashing opening sequence in X-Men 2 is partially due to the fact that the president under siege by the knife-wielding mutant Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) looked vaguely like George W. Bush.

Maybe so many appearances on television have now made the president of the United States an easy media star whose image is as malleable as any other celebrity's. As Americans grow accustomed to the excuses for distorting history in the name of good entertainment, the objection "but this history was so recent, so important!" can't really hold much water.

That's Our Bush!

It seems apparent that DC 9/11: Time of Crisis is being broadcast right as President Bush begins to stump for re-election. Is DC 9/11: Time of Crisis in fact a species of political propaganda? If Showtime is going to broadcast a film about a George W. Bush engorged with wrath and presidential ire, shouldn't it also finesse the images of some of the other candidates in the name of equal time?

How about a made-for-TV movie about the time Howard Dean rejiggered a patient's faulty pacemaker in the middle of a Vermont snowstorm, using a car battery and the tinfoil from a Hershey bar wrapper? Or the heroic moment when Dick Gephardt actually finished a speech without putting a single member of the audience to sleep?

Partisan columnist Jim Hightower is already grousing that DC 9/11: Time of Crisis will present Bush as "a combination of Harrison Ford and Arnold Schwarzenegger. ... Instead of the doe-eyed, uncertain, worried figure that he was that day, Bush on film is transformed into an infallible, John Wayne-ish, Patton-type leader, barking orders to the Secret Service and demanding that the pilots return him immediately to the White House."

One hopes that DC 9/11: Time of Crisis will be leavened with a blast of subversive acting. Timothy Bottoms, who plays W., lampooned the hell out of Bush in eight episodes of That's My Bush! on Comedy Central. In the eight episodes of the show, the first family was played as a sitcom bunch, with bumbling husband, all-knowing wife and back-talking maid. The cult hit was canceled by Comedy Central in August 2001, only one short month before Sept. 11 and the instant media canonization of the president. Which leads to the terrifying question: did Comedy Central have information about 9/11 that the FBI and the Secret Service didn't?

Bottoms recently told the Houston Chronicle that this chance to play Bush as hero wasn't just "my opportunity as an American to do something for the victims and surviving family members of those victims of 9/11." It was also "a selfish opportunity to bring a closure for the character."

Bottoms is a good and serious actor, indelible as the lonely small-town teenager Sonny in The Last Picture Show. He's nurtured a particularly forlorn, blocked look since youth. He is perfect as Bush, since Bottoms' persona still has some of the curdled boyishness seen in the president. By perfect, I mean not just that he looks right as the typical dithering sitcom dad--always an overgrown boy, pleased with himself, silly, irritable and dense. Bottoms also looks very much like the man he is playing. Bottoms has the broad forehead, the narrow and, some would say, beady eyes, the air of truculent self-satisfaction, that characteristic Bush family mouth, a downturned frown like a miffed parson.

When the show was canceled, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone--the twin devils of deception responsible for South Park--announced they were scripting an early version of Bush: The Movie. The script's working title: George W. Bush and the Secret of the Glass Tiger.

While Parker and Stone were unavailable for comment, the big idea was reportedly that Bush gains superpowers and fights an armada of Chinese secret agents. (As such, not a completely unprecedented idea. Long-memoried kids remember a very bad mid-1966 cartoon show titled Super President; and in the vaults of a comic-book store near you is Reagan's Raiders, a small-press comic book about the superpowerized Reagan White House going sub rosa to wipe out drug dealers, Communist scum and the like. The series, published in 1986, was most emphatically not a joke.)

My Big Fat Docudrama

The Bush Dynasty's association with a part of Hollywood goes back--like so much that persists in Bush 2--to Bush 1. The elder George Bush was supported financially by producer Jerry Weintraub. Weintraub, a music promoter turned producer, scored a big success with the Steven Soderbergh version of Ocean's Eleven.

In the late '80s, Weintraub had a movie-releasing wing called the Jerry Weintraub Organization. He engineered three of the worst movies of the decade, one of them the frankly propagandistic flop Listen to Me (1989), featuring the ineffable Jami Gertz and born-again actor Kirk Cameron as members of a conservative college's debate team. Underdogs they were, who successfully won a debate against an Ivy League team of young princes of darkness. The issue was a legally mandated waiting period for abortion. Clinching the point were Gertz's tears at the podium; she wept as she said that an abortion was too big a decision for a woman to bear alone.

In DC 9/11: Time of Crisis, a newly heroized George W. Bush will be accompanied by the supporting characters we've come to know and love through protocol-squeezed press conferences and The Lehrer Report. Rummy--a William Holden part--is assayed by John Cunningham, a perennial doctor and judge type from the soaps. Penny Johnson Jerald, the evil wife Sherry Palmer from TV's 24, co-stars as the former Palo Altoan Condoleeza Rice. A character actor named Gerry Mendocino plays the recently sword-fallen George Tenet. (Mendocino also played lovable Uncle Taki in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.)

And we have news that will bring happiness to both Trekkies and Takeis alike (i.e., George Takei fans, and aren't we all?). The debonair George Takei, deathless as Sulu on Star Trek, will play San Jose's own airport namesake and former Mayor Norman Mineta--a man of action in an active time as the U.S. Secretary of Transportation. And as the Man Behind the Curtain: Allan Royal plays Karl Rove, the man Dubya refers to as "turd blossom," for his uncanny ability to turn bad perceptions into good ones via media manipulation. Alas, Rove look-alike Philip Seymour Hoffman is currently on Broadway with Long Day's Journey Into Night (a much better title for a Sept. 11 film; too bad Eugene O'Neill got it first).

While I would have loved to see this film in advance, I can only wait just like the rest of the taxpayers and eager viewers. Only a couple more months of the struggle in Iraq will tell if DC 9/11: Time of Crisis will be a boost for a running president or an embarrassing relic of a time before George W. Bush's approval fell like a barometer before a hurricane. It may just be a sick joke. It may, instead, eclipse history, rewriting the memory of that terrible day--a day when national insecurity ran rife partially because the president kept radio silence until dinnertime.

One could take the coldblooded approach that someone was bound to make a film about the White House view of Sept. 11 sooner or later, with the only cynical surprise being that it's taken this long. Director John Waters once advised the young filmmaker to strike while the exploitation possibilities are ripe. Ideally, Waters suggested, the commuter perusing the morning headlines ought to be able to see a movie about it in the theaters that very afternoon.

The disaster movie is a genre so frequently encountered that it merits its own shelf at the video store. In the 1970s--a time as turbulent as today--audiences were lured back into the theaters by the spectacle of the destruction of Los Angeles with Earthquake, followed by The Towering Inferno, featuring incineration of the world's tallest building, with celebrity guest immolation, and Rollercoaster (starring an evil Timothy Bottoms as the extortionist villain).

When the White House blew up in the previews of Independence Day, the scene always drew a little round of anti-authority applause. But now, audiences would have to say, "That's so 9/10."

But our pious insistence that everything has changed since the time of the Sept. 11 bombings may be getting a little strained. There will come a time when images of the jets hitting the buildings are as old as the wreck of the Titanic or the Johnstown Flood. And yesterday's disaster is tomorrow's entertainment. So the IMDB is wise in its way when it adds a postscript to the DC 9/11: Time of Crisis page:

"If you like this title, we also recommend: Falling From the Sky: Flight 174 (1995) (TV)"

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From the July 31-August 6, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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