Perhaps unavoidably, ABC’s “The Path to 9/11” plays like a compendium of movies and documentaries surrounding that fateful day — a pinch of “United 93” here, a dollop of “World Trade Center” there. Derived in part from the 9/11 Commission report, this five-hour presentation is earnest but scattered and a little plodding, with the most powerful aspect involving John O’Neill, the terrorism expert slain in the attack, strongly played by Harvey Keitel. Although NBC cleared ABC’s path by scrubbing its own planned 9/11 miniseries, it’s still a trail littered with the host of productions that preceded it.
Indeed, the sheer glut of 9/11-related programming during the run-up to the fifth anniversary has risked trivializing those events — as if this were Valentine’s Day or Halloween, triggering all those themed episodes that networks trot out.
Judged strictly on its merits, “Path to 9/11” — drawn from several books as well as the commission report, with co-chairman Thomas H. Kean onboard as a producer-consultant — is certainly ambitious, chronologically bracketed by the two assaults on the World Trade Center in 1993 and 2001.
That project’s breadth, however, ultimately seems to overwhelm writer Cyrus Nowrasteh and director David L. Cunningham, whose narrative has strong moments and stylish touches but only begins to coalesce well into the second night. Moreover, the material’s complexity almost requires characters to deliver clunky, expository speeches, unlike the various documentaries covering this terrain.
At its core is O’Neill, the FBI terrorism chief who became convinced that Osama bin Laden posed a formidable danger to the U.S. but, thanks to petty bureaucracy, found few allies. He would eventually leave the FBI and, in a note of tragic irony, become security director for the World Trade Center, where he died on Sept. 11.
O’Neill’s fellow Chicken Little is security adviser Richard Clarke (Stephen Root), who exhibits mounting frustration as President Clinton’s administration zippers problems and the Bush regime assumes a maddeningly indifferent posture toward the threat.
“No one’s taking terrorism seriously,” O’Neill huffs at one point. “No one seems to care.”
(Update Sept. 8: The Clinton portion, attacked by some members of his administration, has triggered a mini-furor.)
Another thread features a CIA agent (Donnie Wahlberg) similarly thwarted in his attempts to help Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, whose charismatic leader, Massoud (Mido Hamada), was targeted for assassination for opposing Al Qaeda.
Not surprisingly, the overall tone is grim, and the fact there’s no suspense regarding the near misses and foiled chances to nail “the Tall One,” as bin Laden is called, isn’t particularly conducive to constructing a thriller.
Initially scheduled for six hours, ABC is airing the project with limited interruption that will translate to about five commercial minutes per hour, or less than a third of the normal load.
There have been several memorable and occasionally haunting productions related to Sept. 11, as well as documentaries such as Court TV’s 9/11 Commission recap “On Native Soil.” Ultimately, those narrower tales offer a clearer picture than this more sweeping view, which crams a decade’s worth of incompetence and overlooked warning signs into one comprehensive package.