President George W. Bush is portrayed with intense sobriety by Timothy Bottoms – which is strange – because Mr. Bottoms’ best known role immediately prior to DC 9/11 was parodying GWB in Matt Stone’s and Trey Parker’s 2001 sitcom pastiche, That’s My Bush. (I guess, like Messrs. Parker and Stone, Mr. Bottoms experienced a post-9/11 swing toward the right.) The other most recognizable actor in the cast of lookalikes is George Takei (Star Trek) as Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. We can all feel confident and relaxed with Sulu at the helm!
The first scene, taking place at the Pentagon on 9/11 sometime before the first plane strikes, immediately establishes the film’s Republican priorities. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld is speaking to a group of senators, hyping the need to increase defense spending, even if it means taking funds out of the “Social Security lockbox” (a not-so-subtle reference to Al Gore). Social Security is fine, Rummy acknowledges, “but without national security, it won’t be much use.”
There is a surprising amount of frank policy discussion in the film, some of it intelligent, and almost all of the most salient points issuing from the President. How do we fight a “faceless enemy?” We need to be “proactive, not reactive.” We’ll “let the mission define the coalition.” The President repeatedly stresses the need to “educate” the American people. “We’ll start by going after Bin-Ladin,” because, “for the moment, we want a target the average person can understand.” (“For the moment?!?”) Iraq will come next because, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” Educating us further, the President explains, “We’re not at war with all Islam, just those elements who want to destroy us.”
The scene where the War Cabinet meets is downright Strangelove-ian. When the President is not belaboring the need to educate us poor dumb American slobs (using words like “pluralism” and “diversity”) or weeping with compassion for us, he is talking and acting tough: “We’re gonna kick the hell out of whoever did this.” Or dehumanizing the enemy: “They’re mosquitos! You gotta get the swamps they live in!”
But don’t let any of the dialogue fool you. The film’s real message is in its images. The President is never shown to be anything less than resolute, aware, and in-command – an authority figure we can trust. Even in the Florida classroom, when an aide whispers to him that the second tower has been struck, the President appears totally in charge. (This is completely at odds with the actual documentary footage of Bush in the classroom, looking like a deer caught in the headlights. In Chetwynd’s film version, My Pet Goat is nowhere to be seen.) The film goes out of its way to dispel what it refers to as “the Cheney-runs-the-show myth.” Cheney is just a loyal supporting player to whom Bush confides, “I’m going to need you at my side at all times, consigliere.” (Likening himself to The Godfather‘s Michael Corleone, and Cheney to Robert Duvall?? Creepy!) Karl Rove is just another admiring staff member.
The film ends with the President’s September 20th address, watched by – among others – the Philly’s hockey team, who halt mid-game to gaze at their leader on the giant TV screens above them. Images again transcend words. It’s no longer about right or wrong or ideology of any kind. It’s all about loyalty to the team, and you know what team we’re on. Who can disagree with the film’s last line? “May God watch over the United States of America.” (And save us from this self-styled “War President.”)
A Final Observation – I don’t think Americans want to see 9/11 depicted literally on film, not, in any event, unless the movie tells us something about the tragedy that we don’t already know. I think we’d far rather see the event depicted metaphorically, as in the Spielberg/Cruise War of the Worlds. Which is why I predict Stone’s World Trade Center will be significantly out-grossed by the forthcoming Snakes on a Plane.