The documentary “9/11: Inside the President's War Room” looks at how the Bush White House responded to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, by interviewing officials about how they reacted in real time to events throughout the day.
President George W. Bush plays a big role in this account, and he’s joined by Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Chief of Staff Andy Card, along with an impressive array of other officials who were around the White House that day.
“9/11: Inside the President's War Room” is streaming via Apple TV+ and the BBC iPlayer.
The film starts at sunrise as the president goes on a morning run in Sarasota, Florida. He asks Bloomberg News reporter Richard Keil, who had been a collegiate cross country athlete, to join him on what promised to be a slow news day.
Early reports suggested that a small private plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, so the Bush team had him proceed with a planned visit to an elementary school. Once the second plane hit the other tower, the Secret Service realized that the president might be in danger.
Things got serious for Bush when a third plane crashed into the Pentagon. He remembers, “The first plane was an accident, the second was an attack and the third was a declaration of war.”
Solicitor General Ted Olson gives some of the most affecting commentary as he describes the last minutes of his wife, Barbara Olson, who was a passenger on the American Airlines Flight 77 that hit the Pentagon. Back in 2001, commercial airlines were equipped with a service called Airfone that allowed passengers to make calls during flight. Olson heard from his wife after she knew about the first two planes hitting the World Trade Center and realized that her own hijacked flight would meet a similar fate.
Even though almost every person interviewed says that they couldn’t imagine that the first plane was anything but an accident, their statements are undermined by the presence of narrator Jeff Daniels.
The actor played FBI terrorism expert John O’Neill in the Hulu series “The Looming Tower.” O’Neill, who left the FBI and started a new position as head of security at the World Trade Center on Sept. 10, spent years shouting about the threat of al-Qaeda. He also was killed in the attacks as he tried to help clear the buildings after the planes crashed.
The filmmakers let the Bush administration officials speak their peace and never highlight the internal intelligence battles that rocked the Clinton and Bush presidencies, but the fact that they hired Daniels to narrate their movie suggests that they didn’t just want to let official claims of surprise pass without a subtle counterpoint.
The documentary offers an explanation of the government’s actions over the course of the day, putting each decision in the context of the information available to the deciders at the moment they were required to act. Consider this film to be the Bush administration’s best and most comprehensive explanation of how they responded to an overwhelming crisis in real time.
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