On the Tube: ABC veers off course with 'Path to 9/11'

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ABC's "The Path to 9/11" (8 p.m. Sunday and Monday, WTAE), attempts to communicate the results of the 9/11 Commission report in a dramatic, relatable way for viewers. This isn't entertainment per se, but a way to tell the story of events that led up to that terrible day. At almost five hours and with no commercial interruptions, the miniseries asks a lot of patience on the part of viewers and gives too little in return.

   

'Path to 9/11'

When: 8 to 11 p.m. Sunday and 8 to 10:02 p.m. Monday, ABC.

   

By attempting to dramatize a report, the miniseries jumps all over the place. It would have been better to concentrate on a few or even one key figure. FBI counter-terrorism expert John O'Neil (Harvey Keitel) is the obvious choice. Not only is he involved in efforts to track the work of Osama bin Laden before 9/11, but after a falling out with the agency, he became head of security at the World Trade Center shortly before the attack.

Of all the characters in the film, O'Neil has the most remarkable story and the film sticks with him throughout, but it also veers off to follow other aspects of the 9/11 attacks that we've either seen dramatized before ("Flight 93") or are dramatized poorly here (the guy playing Dick Cheney is way too feeble and bears only a passing resemblance to the vice president).

Nine minutes into Sunday's first part of the miniseries, "Path to 9/11" jumps back to February 1993 and the first World Trade Center bombing. It continues hopping through time to examine significant events in the run-up to the 2001 attack.

"This was like the Keystone Cops vs. the cops who couldn't shoot straight," complains Neil Herman (William Sadler), an FBI supervisory special agent during the investigation of the first attempt to take down the World Trade Center. A catalog of terror events worldwide leading up to 9/11 follows. (Once the film returns to 9/11 in night two, viewers see the second plane hit the World Trade Center and the collapse of the first tower.)

"Path to 9/11" attempts to make O'Neil its central character, but with so many others thrown in, the focus shifts away from him too often. Producers throw in too many examples, and their effort to be comprehensive gets in the way of telling a complete, engaging story. It also leads to a diminishment of many of the players who come off less like well-developed characters and more like tiny pieces in a large puzzle.

Is it really necessary to see Condoleezza Rice (Penny Johnson Jerald, playing Condi for a second time following her premiere as the character in Showtime's 2003 movie "DC 9/11: Time of Crisis") demoting counter-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke (Stephen Root, "NewsRadio") -- she calls it a "restructuring" -- only to turn to him for advice on 9/11? It's a nice tidbit that adds to the preponderance of evidence that bureaucratic bungling and political turf wars played a role in allowing 9/11 to happen, but it's also an unnecessary shift in focus given plenty of other evidence to support that premise.

After the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, O'Neil butts heads with an amazingly antagonistic ambassador to Yemen, Betty Bodine, played like a woman off her meds by Patricia Heaton ("Everybody Loves Raymond"). It's a riveting scene, but it's just that: One scene. If there was more to her role in pre-9/11 mismanagement, I'd like to have seen it portrayed. If not, was the scene needlessly sensational?

(The movie is also provoking some controversy as some liberal organizations charge the miniseries contains inaccuracies about the Clinton administration while soft-pedaling Bush administration blunders.)

As the number of filmed dramatic projects related to 9/11 continues to grow, there's undoubtedly a greater need to offer context, which "Path to 9/11" attempts, but it does so in such a ham-fisted manner, it fails to tell an inherently dramatic story well.


TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Ask TV questions at www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Q&A.


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