Frances Grant: Drama joins up pieces of terror jigsaw

By Frances Grant

What better follow-on from the machinations of Ancient Rome than another epic drama about an empire, its ambitions and its enemies? The Path to 9/11, which aired its first half last night and concludes tonight (TV One, 7.30pm), is a sweeping dramatisation of events leading to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, going back to the first World Trade Centre bombing in 1993.

The thrust of the six-hour extravaganza is the old had-we-but-known scenario - the countless warning signs, the red tape, lack of co-operation between security agencies and lack of political will to stop Osama bin Laden in his tracks.

The al Qaeda leader had left the world in no doubt that he was out to wage jihad on America, but President Clinton is mired in a sex scandal and George Bush is out jogging. While Rome burns ...

The drama is reminiscent in its scope and style of the excellent Traffik, the British mini-series about the global drugs trade on which the American movie Traffic was based, but not quite as compelling.

This is mainly because long parts of it play out simply as re-enactments, which thwarts the development of a complex, interlocking drama. The dramatic tension is further handicapped by dialogue which is intended to sound faithful to events but is at times leaden in its banality.

And so vast is the drama's reach, following the action from Manhattan to Washington, to Manila, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Africa, that none of the many characters have much room to develop.

The closest to a fleshed-out character is John O'Neill (strongly played by Harvey Keitel), the FBI counter-terrorism guru, and the main "Chicken Little" of the piece, whose warnings that the sky is going to fall in are destined to go unheeded.

The opening credits of the drama quoted the 9/11 Commission Report on which it is based (along with journalist John Miller's book The Cell). "In an event of this scale, touching so many issues and organisations, we are conscious of our limits." The drama itself would have been stronger had it also followed this approach.

Dealing with so many events leaping back from 9/11 to the first WTC bombing, the hunt for the masterminds, the pursuit of bin Laden, the attacks on American embassies in Africa, the foiled Millennium plot and more, made it confusing at times, despite all the subtitles stating who was who.

It wasn't always helped either by its over-the-top arty style. Whole scenes portrayed purely in extreme close-ups of eyes or lips are tiring viewing. And there was so much woozy handheld camerawork you were left feeling like you'd had one too many of Agent O'Neill's trademark scotches.

Its mix of real-life footage and dramatic licence might make it hard for some to distinguish between fact and fiction. For example, scenes such as the mission to kill bin Laden in Afghanistan, aborted by a nervous White House, was a composite of several events.

But you had to admire the show for being unafraid to take its time. The result was some intensely atmospheric scenes, particularly in exotic climes, and some extraordinary scenes of suspense.

The Path to 9/11 was, of course, deeply controversial in the US. Conservatives drooled over its patriotism and saw it as laying the blame firmly on former President Bill Clinton; liberals were in high dudgeon over its portrayal of the Clinton Administration as murderously negligent.

Certainly, in last night's first half Clinton was portrayed as too mired in scandals involving blowjobs to be in any shape to strike a blow against America's worst enemy.

And there were several heavy-handed scenes which came across as little more than a PR offensive for the Patriot Act.

Reportedly, in tonight's second half the Bush Administration doesn't come away entirely unscathed. But that's not the only reason to keep watching.

The Path to 9/11 might be too loose and wide-ranging to be a top-notch spy thriller, but it certainly is worth the commitment for its valiant attempt to fill in all the gaps. And if the opening scenes from last night are anything to go by, the final half hour, when Judgment Day comes, promises to be truly gut-wrenching television.

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