This new 9/11 doc gives a behind-the-scenes look at the reaction to the tragedy

In 9/11: Inside The President’s War Room, George W Bush and other key members of his senior team unpick the events of September 11th 2001.

When we think of 9/11, we often think of the events of that day themselves – the shocking footage of the plane hitting the second tower, eye-witness accounts from people on the streets in New York City, and the sheer destruction left in its wake.

But away from the chaos of the tragedy, the events of 9/11 forced people into action across America, including the then-President George W Bush. And it’s his perspective that is the subject of the new BBC documentary, 9/11: Inside The President’s War Room.

Featuring exclusive interviews with Bush, former-Vice President Dick Cheney and their senior staff, the documentary makes use of images and footage from that day to piece together the 12 hours that followed the attacks, from the uncertainty surrounding the president’s safety to Bush’s decision to return to Washington against the orders of his staff.  

Andy Card comes up behind me and says, ‘Second plane has hit the second tower. America is under attack’

While many of the events at the heart of the documentary are well-documented – we see Bush deliver his speech to the nation from the Oval Office, and visit the first responders at Ground Zero – it’s the footage and testimony documenting what went on behind-the-scenes of these moments which make the documentary so unique.

One of the most insightful moments of the documentary sees Bush – in front of a room full of primary school children during a scheduled school visit – recall the moment he heard another plane had hit the second tower, and his decision to stay put until the class had come to an end.

“Andy Card comes up behind me and says, ‘Second plane has hit the second tower. America is under attack’. And I’m watching a child read,” Bush explains. “I see the press in the back of the room beginning to get the same message I just got, and I could see the horror etched on the faces of the news people who just got the same news.” 

The documentary features exclusive testimony from Bush and his senior team.

Explaining his actions, he continues: “During a crisis it’s really important to set a tone, and not to panic. And so, I waited for an appropriate moment to leave the classroom – I didn’t want to do anything dramatic, I didn’t want to lurch out of the chair and scare the classroom full of children, and so I waited.”

Elsewhere, the documentary also explores how quickly Bush came to the decision to fight back against those who had perpetrated the attacks, or, as he put it, “kick their ass”. 

While flying around the country to different air bases (an attempt by his security team to circumvent any attempts to attack the president), we see how Bush’s resolve to take action – which later gave birth to the “Bush doctrine” and the “war on terror” – begins to take shape, both in conversations with his team and during his multiple public addresses.  

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While this documentary doesn’t pay much attention to the victims of the attacks, or consider the impact of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which began as a result of Bush’s “war on terror”, it does provide an eye-opening and often chilling look at the sense of chaos and uncertainty which consumed America in the aftermath of the attacks.

Indeed, while its focus on Bush and his team may render the film more limited in scope compared to other documentaries on the topic, its use of footage, photographs and testimony from the people involved gives it an intimate and insightful tone which makes it a truly powerful watch.

9/11: Inside The President’s War Room is now available to watch on BBC iPlayer 

Images: BBC

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