January 27, 2020

Sept. 11 From the D.C. Perspective

When Lionel Chetwynd called the White House Press Office to request an interview with the president, he got lucky.

Very lucky.

The Los Angeles-based writer-producer had hit a brick wall on his script about how President Bush and his Cabinet acted hours following the catastrophic events of Sept. 11, 2001.

To commemorate the second anniversary of the national tragedy, Showtime had commissioned the British-born, Canadian-reared veteran writer for their fact-based dramatization of the days immediately following the disaster, titled, “DC 9/11: Time of Crisis,” which airs Sept. 7.

While Chetwynd is considered a master of the art of turning real-life drama into movies for TV (“Nixon and Kissinger,” “The Man Who Captured Eichman,” “The Hanoi Hilton” and “Ruby Ridge: An American Tragedy”), the Sept. 11 script had him struggling.

“I’d hit a brick wall,” he told The Journal, “because I hadn’t really thought in advance about the complexities of writing about a sitting administration and about what might or might not be going on.”

But then he decided to call the White House to make sure he was on the right track. Right away, he made contact with Bush’s influential key strategist Karl Rove, who proved to be the main conduit to the Oval Office and members of Bush’s Cabinet.

While the Bush administration and the liberal-leaning Hollywood establishment make strange bedfellows, Chetwynd has always danced to his own political drummer. Chetwynd, 63, who has made more than 20 documentaries, is a staunch Republican who has accumulated some IOU’s from the GOP by way of campaigning for and donating to the Bush cause. (“Not a big donor — just the legal limit of $1,000,” he said. )

“I tried to persuade others in Hollywood to support his campaign because there was a lot of hostility there toward his candidacy,” he said. “There was nothing dark to be read into it, although there was a preexisting relationship. They knew I’d always been enthusiastic about Bush’s presidential ambitions since the days he was governor of Texas.”

When Chetwynd finally got the call to fly to Washington, D.C., he was told, “Stand by — we’ll try to squeeze you in for five or 10 minutes.”

He ended up spending almost an hour alone with the 43rd president of the United States — much to the chagrin, he recalls, of all the president’s men. He says that crucial meeting helped him break the back of his troubled script.

“I told the president I was close to abandoning the script because I couldn’t sort out three guys: the president, the commander in chief and the man — George W. Bush — who has a wife, kids, feelings and emotions,” he recalled. “For the film to be effective, I told him I needed to be able to distinguish between those three people and how they work together.”

Chetwynd had previously screened his film, “Varian’s War,” for Bush, and said the president commented first on the weight Chetwynd had recently lost and quickly put him at ease.

“He told me, ‘Let me see if I can help you,'” he recalled. “And he took me through those crucial nine days. It was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life to sit in the Oval Office and listen to him explain what it was like to have ‘the wall come down around him,’ as he put it.”

Chetwynd said that during their chat, Bush also conceded that his wife had admonished him over his public statement that he wanted Osama bin Laden “dead or alive.”

“He was able to recall with great specificity moments when his three roles came into conflict, when he had to switch from president to commander in chief to husband and father. At the National Cathedral service [which is seen in the movie with film footage intercut with the real news reports] he told me he was deeply moved when he heard a woman weeping.”

What Chetwynd has wrought — an exhaustive study of exactly what happened in the corridors of power immediately following Sept. 11 — can be seen in the movie.

Chetwynd said he was sensitive about not making his movie a “valentine to Bush.” And the film does show Bush stumbling at first, inarticulate in the extreme as his aides look on pained. But gradually he paints a portrait of a “take-charge” executive who, as the hours progress, gains confidence in himself and his job as he takes in complex briefings from the CIA, FBI and State Department chiefs at Cabinet-level meetings in the White House and at Camp David.

There is one scene with Bush on the phone in the Oval Office urging Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to agree to show restraint –“We will hold our hand,” Sharon promises — as the United States plans its strategy.

Chetwynd said what impressed him while he was conducting interviews in Washington, D.C., was that at no time did anyone in the White House even ask, “Which channel are you doing this for?”

“For all they know I could have been doing it for Comedy Central,” he said.

“DC 9/11: Time of Crisis” airs on Showtime, Sun, Sept. 7
at 5 p.m. For additional airings, visit www.sho.com .

Ivor Davis writes for The New York Times and Los Angeles Times syndicates.