Fan of historical fantasy spun by victors? Watch 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room [Apple TV+ review]

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9/11: Inside the President's War Room
This 9/11 doc marks an anniversary people will have no trouble remembering.
Photo: Apple TV+

With the 20-year anniversary of 9/11 around the corner, Apple TV+ funded the new documentary 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room. This was unwise from all but perhaps a business standpoint — but even there it’s a gamble.

9/11: Inside the President’s War Room review

There’s very little you don’t know about the George W. Bush administration’s version of what happened on 9/11. Terrorists, who hated our freedom, sought to teach America a lesson by making them fear for their lives.

In retaliation, Bush invaded Afghanistan, which was said to be harboring the mastermind behind the attacks, Saudi Arabian terrorism financier Osama Bin Laden. Then the White House thought perhaps the real mastermind behind the attacks was Saddam Hussein, so the United States went to war with Iraq.

That more or less forcibly removed the conflict in Afghanistan from the American people’s radar. So much so that when, a few weeks ago, President Joe Biden decided to remove American troops from Afghanistan (which, along with the war in Iraq, he initially supported), people had no idea who to blame. The policies of the Bush administration in Afghanistan had been forgotten.

Return of the Bush administration

All this to say that in the new talking-head documentary 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room, all the star players of the Bush administration — deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney, chief of staff Andy Card, press secretary Ari Fleischer and Bush himself — get to lie once again about everything they knew about the terrorist attacks and the wars they plunged us into.

Worst of all, they all get exactly the same little smirk on their faces when they’re describing just how kooky it was to be in the center of a terror attack. (The documentary is narrated by actor Jeff Daniels, who’s made a lot of money starring in media criticizing the Republican Party, so here’s a timely reminder that he’s a feckless cretin, too.)

You gotta be kidding

Bush, Cheney, Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell — in my opinion, they all deserved to be brought up on war crimes charges at the Hague. (Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld presumably couldn’t participate in this doc because he was already dead. Otherwise he’d have been here with bells on — no one loved a camera like that man did).

The Bush administration went to the United Nations with evidence cooked up by informers who wanted money for false testimony about Iraq’s weapon’s capabilities. The best they got was U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441. It stated that they hadn’t complied with previous resolution 687, which said Iraq had to respect Kuwait’s borders and stop attacking them and pay them back for looting so much of the country. Iraq had no money because the United States had cut off the country’s ability to produce oil, so that was our fault, too.

The United States finessed the language of 1441 so it was impossible for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to comply with it, then invaded.

The ill-advised invasion of Iraq

It’s been extensively documented that the invasion of Iraq was a non sequitur born out of hubris and greed that had nothing to do with how shaken the White House occupants all claim to have been on 9/11 in this new documentary.

Iraq still had oil, and Bush wanted it. You could make the case that there was maybe an imperial Oedipal impulse at work, too. Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, hadn’t been able to fully carve up Iraq the way he wanted to and the first Iraq war partly cost him a second term in the White House. So maybe George W. Bush had something to prove there.

Frankly, that part doesn’t really matter anymore. No matter Bush the younger’s motivation for doing so, he and his “war room” — who called themselves The Vulcans in a classic case of not doing the homework — decided they were going to lie and say they had a watertight case for war in Iraq.

They used America’s grief and anger over 9/11 to grease the wheels and get everyone on board for the invasion of Iraq.

It worked. Hundreds of thousands of people, Iraqi and American, died. For nothing they died. America didn’t get any safer. (Indeed, fervor over the war led to the passage of a number of human rights rollbacks in America that we’re still feeling today.) Iraq was nearly wiped off the map, despite having very little in the way of ambition, to say nothing of means, to cause further harm to anyone but its own people.

You have simply got to be kidding

Throughout the lead-up to war, every lie being told to the American public was thoroughly documented. (Journalist Bob Woodward alone wrote five books based on his first-hand account of the planning for the war.) So, too, were the Americans fouling up attempts to actually have Bin Laden arrested for years, which could have prevented him from giving seed capital to the 9/11 hijackers.

Dozens of books, newspapers, journals and magazines all spell this out. Plus, the Bush administration was filled with accidental moles like Doug Feith and David Wurmser who couldn’t help but accidentally spill every single secret to the press at every single opportunity.

All this to say the Bush administration’s official version of events has been disproven, by its own guys in some cases. If you want a comprehensive accounting of the war, I suggest the first season of the podcast Blowback by Brendan James and Noah Kulwin.

Making a 9/11 documentary

Instead, Apple TV+ serves up 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room. The idea that sleazy tabloid TV producers Neil Grant (Michael Jackson’s Last Days: What Really Happened) and Simon Finch (Trump: An American Dream) gathered all these people to let the Bush admin, once again, lie about every single thing they knew and did and didn’t do is absolutely infuriating.

Both Grant and Finch are Brits, by the way. No sane American would have touched this project. And Apple TV+ would look foolish to get in bed with the likes of Dinesh D’Souza or Ben Shapiro, the only kind of person who would have agreed to make this over here.

I shouldn’t be surprised that, 20 years later, we’re still asking Cheney to tell fables about what it was like on 9/11 when he’s responsible for the deaths of more people than you’ll ever meet in your entire lifetime, but I was.

Want to get enraged?

I watched most of this 90-minute documentary seething with rage and/or laughing darkly at the hubris of the project. These guys really and truly believe that we don’t know what they did — that we knew (or at least suspected) the entire duration of the war that this was all nonsense. That our gutting of Iraq’s civil services to make it easier to install a puppet government had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11.

Bush at one point in this doc says something like, “We didn’t know who did this but high on my priority list was kick their ass.” Needless to say, on top of all the crimes committed in the name of vengeance, Bush did not actually do anything to or about the people who financed the 9/11 attacks. The Saudis who vetted Bin Laden in the first place got away scot-free because America had too much money tied up in their success.

Yet it’s still so profoundly sad and offensive that this thing exists. It’s disturbing that Apple TV+ wanted badly enough to get into bed with Bush that they’d produce this ghoulish cavalcade of crooks using the memory of 9/11 to cover their asses right in time for their chickens to once again come home to roost. (After all Netflix has Obama, right? So Apple TV+ needs its own ex-president.)

Bush even gets a chance to recontextualize the famous classroom footage where they tell him the country’s under attack and he sits still and does nothing for a few very long minutes.

Commemorating 9/11

I get wanting to commemorate 9/11. But asking the people who shamelessly used it to make billions of dollars destroying a country and earning sweet pensions, selling books, and getting and giving no-bid contracts along the way, is quite frankly the very worst way Apple TV+ could have done it.

I would have rather heard from literally anyone else on earth. Jesse Ventura, Miley Cyrus, Bobby Orr, Mr. Met — doesn’t matter. Find someone on the street and ask them — at least they didn’t start the Iraq war.

There’s nothing resembling new insight here. Bush liked to go jogging! An elementary schooler thought meeting the president was super-keen!

All we get is more lies from people whose lies we all previously memorized, played over the already ubiquitous footage of thousands dying in the World Trade Center. The movie replays the Twin Towers falling so frequently you genuinely can’t help but wonder if the editors just loved seeing Americans die.

This is an unthinkable stunt, a grotesque and disgusting thing. Bush and Rice and Cheney all got to grow old surrounded by their money and their families while soldiers and civilians died or lived to bear the brunt of their collective and world-historic inhumanity.

The final scene of 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room shows Rove pretending to choke up at the memory of the bereaved widows of firefighters, and all you can do is laugh. This guy, all of these guys, they didn’t care about us that day. And they sure don’t care about us now.

9/11: Inside the President’s War Room on Apple TV+

9/11: Inside the President’s War Room is now streaming on Apple TV+.

Rated: TV-14

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.