Docudrama, presented in flashback, unfolds like a riveting, if choppy, page-turning novel in telling the heretofore little-known story behind the story of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the Islamic extremists for whom destroying America wasn’t just a job, it was a mission from Allah. And with Tim McVeigh’s possible death sentence for his own domestic bombing being pondered this week, HBO’s timing is impeccable.
Yet as unsettling a piece of business as “Path to Paradise” turns out to be, the primary emotion it evokes is rage. And perhaps that’s precisely the reaction that writer Ned Curren and husband-and-wife directors Leslie Libman and Larry Williams were going after.
What this film tells us is that America is essentially impotent to stop future terrorist attacks within our borders because the government is so concerned with protecting everyone’s civil rights. The point Curren’s script makes again and again is that these religious zealots mocked us and our system, laughing at our lax laws and our lightweight punishments.
In other words, “Path to Paradise” presents one very slick invitation to any extremist organization that may be considering bombing the U.S. back to the Stone Age. Step right up, all ye nut cases, and take your best shot. And please try not to laugh at our kid gloves as we put the squeeze on you.
Stylish almost to a fault, film stars Peter Gallagher as John Anticev, the FBI special agent assigned to counter domestic terrorism, and Paul Guilfoyle as Lou Napoli, the NYPD detective who works with him. The two become concerned after Rabbi Meier Kahane is assassinated by a Muslim extremist named El Sayyid Nosair (Shaun Toub), and they are convinced he wasn’t acting alone. They were right.
The film pins the World Trade Center bombing plot on the anti-American zealotry of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman (Andreas Katsulas), whose hateful teachings inspire a legion of followers who are driven to destroy the country from the inside.
As the bomb plan takes shape, the FBI allows a key informant to slip through its fingers. We even see that the police literally had the bomb maker, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef (well played by Art Malik), right in its hands when he is involved in a car accident carrying bomb chemicals. But they let him slip away.
Curren’s script presents the investigation as a comedy of blown opportunities, while directors Libman and Williams tend to be overly ambitious in using time-lapse photography and quick-cut camerawork to arouse an artificial vitality that the story doesn’t need.
Even so, “Path to Paradise” is better than 90% of the docudramas attempted by TV. For one thing, it gives us a true insider glimpse at the building blocks of a tragedy that, for the first time, made America feel vulnerable to the same politically motivated assaults as the rest of the world.
If not for the fact that one of the terrorists was dumb enough to use his real name on a Ryder rental truck slip, the perpetrators might have even gotten away with it. “Path to Paradise” illustrates all too clearly that our system is easily penetrable even by folks who aren’t necessarily all that bright.