NBC stoops to crass exploitation of 9/11 response

Shoot-'em-up movie only serves to confuse the national debate

Television

April 11, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The one thing we don't need in the midst of the current election-year battle over who is most responsible for the nation's vulnerability to the 9/11 attacks is a reckless, propagandistic, Rambo-esque, made-for-TV movie that attempts to exploit the grief, fear, confusion and anger still being felt from those attacks.

But that is exactly what NBC offers tonight with Homeland Security, a jingoistic docudrama about the agency set up in response to 9/11 by the Bush administration.

Airing a docudrama as rife with political baggage and emotionally charged stereotypes as this one, at a time when the country is debating just what President Bush and his advisers knew before the attacks, suggests an appalling lack of social responsibility by the network.

The film opens with a steady military drumroll as the screen fills with a message: "In September 1999 - two years prior to the tragedy of 9/11 - the United States Commission on National Security reported that direct and catastrophic terrorist attacks would be launched against the American homeland in the near future. The bipartisan commission recommended the creation of a new fully independent `Homeland Security Agency' that would co-ordinate the efforts of all existing U.S. Defense and Intelligence agencies to protect the American homeland. The commission's recommendations were never followed. ... "

If true, that would be potentially powerful stuff, making the more recent claims and counterclaims of former counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice regarding the Bush administration moot. NBC's Homeland Security movie is telling us that President Clinton's White House is the one to blame.

However, as is all too often the case with docudrama, what is stated as fact is not exactly true. There was no such pointed recommendation made in 1999. Only a portion of a report was issued in September of that year by the commission, and it aimed only to describe a changing international landscape and what that might mean to homeland security.

But let's not quibble over supposed docu-facts when there is a whole two hours of so-called drama to chew on. The film centers on the formation of an elite team made up of distinctly American types and designed to protect the homeland: the Office of Homeland Security.

The real chief of the Cabinet-level agency, Tom Ridge, is referred to but never seen. The leader and driving force in NBC's telling is Adm. Theodore McKee (Tom Skerritt), a flinty ramrod of moral rectitude. He is wise and incorruptible, but his college-age daughter is hopelessly in love with a young Arab-American man who is ultimately depicted in the language of racist, World War II propaganda films too ugly to reproduce in the newspaper.

The scene that best suggests the level of stereotype and bloodlust on which this film operates shows a caravan of SUVs filled with al-Qaida operatives speeding across a dusty stretch of Afghanistan after 9/11. Inside one vehicle, two of the soldiers are mocking and laughing uproariously at America's response to the attacks.

"America hit back once, twice, then scream and run away," one of the men says, laughing.

"Like a woman," scoffs another. "Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia - they run like little kitties."

As they laugh, the camera cuts away to show an American jet flying overhead. It has one of the SUVs in its sights as it launches a missile. The scene concludes with a terrific explosion and body parts flying through a ball of fire and metal straight toward the viewer.

Guess they won't be calling us little kitties any more, pardner.

The American western is the genre most obviously tapped by Homeland Security in its effort to help us feel like we are walking tall again as a nation.

Two of the talented but misfit agent-heroes recruited by McKee, Grant Show and Scott Glenn, actually spend part of the film in Afghanistan on horseback, armed to the teeth, slaughtering waves of faceless enemies by calling down air strikes on them. CIA operatives who have had it with bureaucracy, they enjoy running with Sheriff McKee's posse.

Needless to say, like McKee, they are also great patriots - too good for the CIA, but just about right for Homeland Security. Now, if only Congress would give them the money and authority they need to make the world safe, instead of acting like "little kitty" politicians.

Since Janet Jackson's Super Bowl performance, there has been widespread discussion about broadcasters' responsibilities regarding indecency. But what about the crucial role television plays in obfuscating such critical issues as how we can defend against terrorism without compromising our national ideals?

It would be nice if, every now and then, network television would resist its own worst impulses to exploit us as consumers, and instead think of us as citizens needing clarity more than crass entertainment.

On TV

What: Homeland Security

When: Tonight at 9

Where: WBAL (Channel 11)

In brief: Just what we don't need - a docudrama mixing fact and fiction on 9/11 and homeland security in an election year

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