Thats Our Bush!

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

This is the story of DC 9/11. Screenwriter and co-executive producer Lionel Chetwynd had access to top officials and staffers, including Bush, Fleischer, Card, Rove, and Donald Rumsfeld—all of whom are played by look-alike actors in the movie (as are Cheney, Rice, John Ashcroft, Karen Hughes, Colin Powell, George Tenet, and Paul Wolfowitz). The script was subsequently vetted by right-wing pundits Fred Barnes, Charles Krauthammer, and Morton Kondracke. Chetwynd, whose vita includes such politically charged movies and telefilms as The Hanoi Hilton, The Heroes of Desert Storm, The Siege at Ruby Ridge, Kissinger and Nixon, and Varian's War, is a prominent Hollywood conservative—a veteran of the 1980 Reagan campaign who, after Bill Clinton's election 12 years later, was recruited by right-wing pop culture ideologue David Horowitz to set up the Wednesday Morning Club ("a platform in the entertainment community where a Henry Hyde can come and get a warm welcome and respectful hearing," as Chetwynd later told The Nation).

Chetwynd bonded with Dubya in March 2001 when, at Rove's suggestion, Varian's War was screened at the White House; Chetwynd was subsequently involved in various post-9-11 Hollywood-Washington conclaves and currently serves Bush as part of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. Shot largely in Toronto, DC 9/11 was eligible for Canadian film subsidies, but it is, in nearly every other sense, an official production.

The Clinton administration was characterized by a cycle of movies featuring Hollywood presidents; a culmination of those fantasies, The West Wing TV series is a virtual presidency set in an ongoing alternate universe. But only twice before DC 9/11 has a reigning president been portrayed in the context of the entertainment machine.

An FDR stand-in appeared briefly in the notorious wartime propaganda epic Mission to Moscow (1943), his back turned discreetly to the camera as he instructs the actor playing Ambassador Joseph Davies to go to Stalin's Soviet Union and "get the hard-boiled facts behind the most dangerous situation in history." Roosevelt reaped no domestic political capital from Mission to Moscow (on the contrary). The real precedent for DC 9/11 is the similarly titled PT 109 (1963), which reconstructed the wartime heroics of then-president John F. Kennedy.

While no Hollywood producer ever suggested bringing Dwight Eisenhower's military exploits to the screen, Warner Bros. purchased rights to Robert Donovan's bestselling PT 109 soon after JFK's inauguration. Kennedy's well-publicized escapade as a PT-boat skipper was already an integral part of his image; it was the basis for Kennedy's first congressional campaign in 1946 and figured prominently in the 1960 election. PT 109 was designed to be the greatest campaign poster ever created—in widescreen and living color. The White House naturally requested and received approval of the script; and the president effectively cast the actor who was to play him. JFK initially requested Warren Beatty. (Years later, Beatty slyly maintained—in an interview with John Kennedy Jr.—that it was the first lady who, having seen him in Splendor in the Grass, proposed that he play her husband.) But Beatty was ambivalent. By one account, when Jack Warner suggested he go to Washington to study the president, Beatty insolently replied, "If the president wants me to play him, tell him to come here and soak up some of my atmosphere."

Watching screen tests flown overnight to the White House that March, JFK nixed teen heartthrob Edd "Kookie" Byrnes (the cute parking-lot attendant on the TV detective show 77 Sunset Strip) and Jeffrey Hunter (who played Jesus Christ in the 1961 King of Kings). The best-known candidate was Peter Fonda, whose father, Henry, had narrated a 1960 Kennedy campaign film concerning PT 109—at one point emphatically brandishing a coconut "much like the one" that the future president used to send a message for help. Kennedy tactfully rejected his supporter's son as too young, deciding on the mature-looking Cliff Robertson, who at 36 was a decade older than the man he'd be playing and hence more "presidential."

Would JFK have had the audacity to promote a docudramatization of the Cuban missile crisis as part of his bid for re-election? As political as PT 109, DC 9/11 models Bush on Kennedy's appearances in the 1974 telefilm The Missiles of October, the 1983 miniseries featuring William Devane as JFK and telepresident-to-be Martin Sheen as brother Bobby, and particularly, the 2000 feature Thirteen Days—selected for the first official Bush White House screening, with Senator Ted Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy in attendance. But however hagiographic, these were period pieces memorializing a dead leader.

The turgid DC 9/11 would doubtless have been more entertaining with Harrison Ford or Arnold Schwarzenegger or even Ronald Reagan in the role of the president. DC 9/11 is instead the spectacle of Reagan in reverse: Rather than being a professional actor who entered politics, Bush is a politician who has been reconfigured, packaged, and sold as a media star—dialogue included. Indeed, that metamorphosis is the movie's true subject.

The basic Dubya narrative is the transformation of a roistering Prince Hal into a heroic Henry V (as dramatized in the agitprop version of Shakespeare's play staged this summer in Central Park). In DC 9/11, the young Bush—spoiled frat boy and drunken prankster—is subsumed in the image of the initially powerless president. The movie is thus the story of Bush assuming command, first of his staffers (who attest to his new aura with numerous admiring reaction shots) and then the situation. He is the one who declares that "we are at war," who firmly places Cheney (Lawrence Pressman) in his secure location—not once but twice. (To further make the point, Chetwynd has Scott Alan Smith's Fleischer muse that the press refuses to get it: "The Cheney-runs-the-show myth is always going to be with some of them.") Rudy Giuliani, who eclipsed Bush in the days following the attack, is conspicuously absent—or, rather, glimpsed only as a figure on television.

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