Thats Our Bush!

The presidents re-election campaign kicks off with a shameless 9-11 docudrama

In the end 9-11 turned out to be a made-for-TV movie, or rather, the basis for one—a shameless propaganda vehicle for our superstar president George W. Bush.

The feature DC 9/11: Time of Crisisis a signal advance in the instant, ongoing fictionalization of American history, complete with the president fulminating most presidentially against "tinhorn terrorists," decisively employing the word problematic in a complete sentence, selling a rationale for preemptive war, and presciently laying out American foreign policy for the next 18 months. "We start with bin Laden," Bush (played by Timothy Bottoms) tells his cabinet. "That's what the American people expect. . . . So let's build a coalition for that job. Later, we can shape different coalitions for different tasks."

Premiering Sunday on Showtime, DC 9/11 inaugurates Bush's re-election campaign 50 weeks before the 9-11 Memorial Republican National Convention opens in Madison Square Garden. DC 9/11 also marks a new stage in the American cult of personality: the actual president as fictional protagonist.

There are, of course, precedents. "One of the original aspects of Soviet cinema is its daring in depicting contemporary historical personages, even living figures," André Bazin dryly observed in his 1950 essay, "The Myth of Stalin in the Soviet Cinema." It was one of the unique characteristics of Stalin-era Soviet movies that their infallible leader was regularly portrayed, by professional impersonators, as an all-wise demiurge in suitably grandiose historical dramas. So it is with DC 9/11, where documentary footage of the collapsing WTC is punctuated by the pronouncements of Bottoms' Bush.

That Bottoms is reconfiguring his role in the Comedy Central series That's My Bush! (a gross-out sitcom canceled a month before 9-11) provides a uniquely American twist. In the aftermath of the first Iraq war, Bush the elder was brought down in part by Dana Carvey's devastating campaign of ridicule on Saturday Night Live. Drafting the clownish Bottoms effectively preempts that strategy. Indeed, casting a former Bush travesty in the role of the serious Bush only reinforces the telefilm's agenda, namely that the events of September 11 served to render divine Bush's dubious mandate.

A movie that attempted to reconstruct Bush's actual activities on 9-11 would be fascinating, if not entirely heroic. A detailed attempt to account for the president's movements and actions on what he later termed that "interesting day" may be found at the Center for Cooperative Research website (cooperativeresearch.org): Bush had just arrived at a Florida elementary school for a pre-planned 9 a.m. photo op when he was informed that a plane had crashed into the WTC 15 minutes before. Bush would later make the impossible claim that he saw the event televised live. (In early December, the president told an Orlando audience he'd been watching TV that morning and saw "an airplane hit the tower of a—of a—you know . . . and I said, 'Well, there's one terrible pilot.'") As Secret Service men evidently were watching TV in another classroom, however, news of the second crash reached him almost immediately. Bush's startled response, documented on video for all eternity and seen by millions, is restaged in the movie: as Chief of Staff Andrew Card appears beside Bush and whispers in his ear, the president responds with visible shock and panic (the real Bush was more expressive than Bottoms). Missing from DC 9/11 is the president's next move—picking up a children's book called The Pet Goat.

By then, back in the real D.C., Secret Service men had already burst into Dick Cheney's office and bodily carried the vice president to a secure location in the White House basement. Meanwhile, responding to Press Secretary Ari Fleischer's hastily scrawled instructions ("DON'T SAY ANYTHING YET"), Bush actually remained in the classroom for almost 10 minutes, taking his time thanking the kids and the teachers ("Hoo! These are great readers . . .") shortly before boarding Air Force One, where he was informed that his plane was the next terrorist target.

DC 9/11 subtly rejiggers these events so that Cheney is hustled into the White House basement only after Bush is aloft—the implication being that the entire leadership was equally dazed and confused, and that relocating Bush was part of the solution rather than one of the problems. According to The Washington Post, Cheney, seconded by Condoleezza Rice, instructed Bush not to return to Washington. Nevertheless, the movie does attempt to deal with the circumstances that had the president largely incommunicado for the rest of the day. According to the Post account, there was little debate on Air Force One—the plane banked sharply and flew south to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where Bush's first official statement was made at 12:36. He appeared hesitant and nervous—as does Bottoms in the movie. Within the hour, Air Force One had taken off for another base, and not until that evening, after eight hours flying from Florida to Louisiana to Nebraska to Washington, did the president address the nation.

The threat to the president's plane was soon recognized as bogus, although it took weeks for the White House to acknowledge it. By September 13, however, presidential image-maker Karl Rove had released his script: "I'm not going to let some tinhorn terrorist keep the president of the United States away from the nation's capital," Bush had supposedly complained, a line further improved in DC 9/11 as "If some tinhorn terrorist wants me, tell him to come and get me! I'll be at home, waiting for the bastard!" Simultaneously, the real Rice was detailing Bush's instant grasp of the situation, explaining that he was the first in his administration to understand the meaning of the events.

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