A particular type of political documentary that attempts to put us “in the room” to tell us how historic choices were taken and how the flawed individuals who made them felt. However, on September 11th, 2001, when aircraft hijacked by al-Qaida terrorists demolished New York’s World Trade Center twin buildings, killing almost 3,000 Americans, the confusion was such that there was no one “room.” President George W. Bush and his aides were on the move all day, fearful for their safety and constantly looking for intelligence, and forced to do their business in airfield bunkers, the rear room of a school, and onboard the president’s plane, Air Force One.
Nonetheless, 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room (BBC One) captures the feeling of being in the room in a manner that few films have. That day has been described as a catastrophe movie that no scriptwriter would dare to create. It’s a horrifyingly terrible but yet enthralling story here, with parallel narratives following the president’s travels and the unfolding horror on the ground.
The film’s historical video contains several Adam Curtis moments, such as Bush killing a fly on the Oval Office desk seconds before making the most important speech of his life, to emphasize that every minute of September 11th included something strange or terrible. However, when every key government figure shares its memories on camera, the stunning images are overshadowed by personal tales. We hear from the captain of the situation room, who recalls bracing herself against the president’s desk as Air Force One conducted a steep emergency takeoff – “I became somewhat weightless.” I was terrified” – and the deputy communications director, who became agitated when Bush’s doctor handed him anti-anthrax tablets and took his whole week’s supply in one go.
However, this is mostly a glimpse into the thinking of the main interviewee: George W Bush. At first, we witness his infamous folksy simplicity, seen in his oddly counterintuitive decision to ignore the news about the second tower being struck for several long minutes for fear of being disrespectful to a class of Florida seven-year-olds receiving a presidential visit. While still in the eye of a storm of unknown severity and size, Bush repeatedly asked for everyone around him to stop and pray. “Prayer may be quite comforting,” he adds in one passage.
Such emotions may be interpreted as strange in the face of impending disaster or as appropriate reactions to a situation in which what could be accomplished immediately was uncertain. According to one participant, while assessments of Churchill or Roosevelt in wartime focus on acts that took weeks to complete, Bush on 9/11 is a study of a leader forced to make monumental decisions on the go.
Inside the President’s War Room is particularly illuminating in this regard. We learn how dread and sadness, as well as a resolve to protect US people, had to make way for the urge to, in Bush’s words, “kick their ass” before it was a clear whose ass or how. By that evening, the president had officially established the “Bush doctrine,” which said that harboring terrorists was the same as committing terrorism. In haste, a new American pathology, the “war on terror,” was created.
The fact that this documentary, commemorating the 20th anniversary of 9/11, airs precisely as the subsequent military operation in Afghanistan comes to an end demonstrates the repercussions of this. The specter of that war, as well as the US and its allies’ 2003 invasion of Iraq, lingers over the whole work, complicating even the most basic emotional interactions. Karl Rove is the politician who expressed the helpless anguish of seeing the twin buildings fall on television. Dick Cheney is the man with the bowed head, overwhelmed by emotion as he recalls the issue of whether or not to shoot down United Flight 93.
Are those moments still moving, knowing that those men went on to commit atrocities of their own? Yes, but Inside the President’s War Room does an excellent job of making that background clear. The fact that we are in the room does not prevent us from seeing beyond.