UK TV review: 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room
Ivan Radford | On 05, Sep 2021
“We’re doing to deal with this and it’s going to be OK.” Those were the words of George W Bush to a member of staff on 11 September 2001, as he boarded Air Force One. The former US President recalls that moment, along with many others, from that tragic day in 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room. He admits here that when he said it, he had no idea what “this” was, how they were going to deal with it and whether or not things would be OK – and it’s that candid insight that makes this documentary such a remarkable watch.
Co-produced by the BBC and Apple TV+, the 90-minute film tells the story of the 9/11 attacks through the eyes of those making the decisions on the day about how to respond. Where notable leaders in historical times of conflict, such as Churchill, made decisions and took actions over time, what we watch here is an administration having to react on the spot to a horrifying tragedy that took the world by surprise. The photo of George W Bush in a primary school, looking dazed in front of a class of kids as news of the second tower reached him, is a familiar sight from newspaper headlines, but this documentary gives us the account of what was going on behind the image – a man torn between interrupting seven-year-olds reading to the President to deal with the crisis and explaining the harrowing tragedy to children and teachers as it was still unfolding. You can almost see in the video footage of that visit his eyes hardening in resolve as he processes the events.
What followed was a day of chaos, getting on board Air Force One, deemed the safest place for the President – even as ripples of fear about a potential insider in the team left everyone rattled – then making base in a bunker away from Washington DC, while struggling to get a phone signal. It’s a sign of how unprecedented the disaster was that Bush delivered his first speech about the Twin Towers in the back of a school, when he was hoping to talk about education policy, as information was still being gathered.
Jeff Daniels narrates the 12 hours after the attacks with a calm, sombre tone, but it’s the astonishing array of talking heads that have the real weight; director Adam Wishart (Trouble at the Big Top) secures access to former Vice President Dick Cheney, the then national security advisor Condoleeza Rice, former director of communications Dan Bartlett and Karl Rove, the then senior advisor to the president. Edited seamlessly with unseen photographs and video footage, the result is a gripping access-all-areas account of that day: as Air Force One made a rare emergency take-off at a steep angle; as Dick Cheney briefly wrestled with whether to try and shoot down United 93; as staff members watched the news on the TV, shocked, like the rest of the world; as Bush settled on a policy to take a firm stance against terrorism and pledge to strike back against the attacks’ perpetrators and those assisting them.
Arriving in the week leading up to the 20th anniversary of 9/11, all these decisions come amid a context that’s only become more complex since, not least with the fallout of the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. The documentary doesn’t need to focus on these things for them to be looming in the background of each interview – they’re highlighted through its title alone. George W Bush insists late on that he’s comfortable with his response to 9/11 and confident that he did the right thing. This riveting documentary doesn’t make a judgement on that, but lets us see the man before he had time to reflect on the past 20 years, as he went through the same gauntlet of reactions to a national trauma in real-time. The compelling comments and interviews bring some nuance and clarity to the thought processes behind the speeches we now know all too well – but they carry added impact knowing that the ripples of each statement and action are still playing out today.
9/11: Inside the President’s War Room is available on BBC iPlayer until August 2022