Thursday, September 07, 2006

More "Path to 9/11"

[ThinkProgress, btw, has been giving good coverage of The Path to 9/11.]

My local ABC affiliate just e-mailed me a response (at bottom) to my letter expressing doubts about The Path to 9/11. It's ABC's boilerplate response (which, for whatever reason, ABC didn't send me when I e-mailed them).

As you can see, ABC's stance is that "The Path to 9/11" isn't a documentary but rather a dramatization. Obviously, there's a big distinction between drama and documentary, but whether you call it "docudrama" or "dramatization," there's an important ethical obligation to get your facts right. When you tell somebody you're "dramatizing" an event, you're telling them that you're going to make the facts emotionally compelling; you're not telling them that you're going to make the facts up.

It is of course possible to make compelling and enduring art by playing fast and loose with the facts. All of Shakespeare's history plays do so. But it's also possible to make compelling, enduring, and unethical art by doing the same. For example, in 1915 D.W. Griffith did so with The Birth of a Nation, one of the first feature films shown in the US (or anywhere). It was such a virtuoso piece of technical filmmaking that helped shape Hollywood production for decades. It was also a virulent piece of anti-black propaganda (based on a novel by an avowed Klan sympathizer) that basically blamed the Civil War and the turmoil of Reconstruction on ignorant negroes and scheming mulattos. Despite its many artistic merits and its historical significance, it's a deeply sleazy movie.

I have no objection whatsoever to compressing characters, dialogue, and scenes in order to make the movie of airable length. But I will object if it turns out that the makers of The Path to 9/11 have compressed all Democrats into weasels or pansies, all Muslims into murderous animals, all reporters into bin Laden's downfield blockers, and George Bush into a leader who didn't sit staring blankly at a picture book for fifteen minutes after his aides told him about 9/11.

Once again, I'm withholding judgment until the program airs. But I'm suspicious. Very suspicious.

Oh, and not for nothing: Scholastic has been deeply suspect in all this. They've been promoting the drama and affiliated supplementary materials as teaching aides. ABC, if it wants to be lame, can try to hide behind the "it's just a dramatization" line. But if you're selling educational tools, you've got no business doing that. None. And, if ABC is insisting that the movie is purely entertainment or art (and therefore not bound by the norms of accurate documentary) it shouldn't have its logo plastered all over the Scholastic promotional materials.

ABC sez:
"The Path to 9/11 is a dramatization, not a documentary, drawn from a variety of sources, including the 9/11 commission report, other published materials and from personal interviews. The events that lead to 9/11 originally sparked great debate, so it's not surprising that a movie surrounding those events has revived the debate. The attacks were a pivotal moment in our history that should never be forgotten and it's fitting that the discussion continues."

In addition, the following disclaimer will air throughout the movie:

"The following movie is a dramatization that is drawn from a variety of sources including the 9/11 Commission Report and other published materials, and from personal interviews. The movie is not a documentary. For dramatic and narrative purposes, the movie contains fictionalized scenes, composite and representative characters and
dialogue, as well as time compression."


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