A War Story is one more attempt in a long line of art to make sense of 9/11 – this time from a uniquely Kiwi perspective.
The coordinated terrorist attacks on September 11 2001 cut a razor-sharp divide between the relatively carefree time before and everything after, bleeding into the culture that stood on either side of it. Inevitably, since this is how humans best process life-altering events, artistic interpretations and references great and small began to emerge soon after.
I recall specifically: an allegorical episode of The West Wing that was turned around just three weeks later, the removal of the Twin Towers from Sex and the City’s opening credits; even a Frasier character named after producer and screenwriter David Angell who was on board one of the planes. And that’s to say nothing of the screeds of media that more directly references and comments on 9/11 itself.
More recently, Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2018 novel My Year Of Rest and Relaxation kicks off in New York City midway through the year 2000 – it’s impossible not to feel 9/11 looming queasily on the horizon as the narrator attempts to jump forward in time via pill-induced sleep. Any art set during a previous time of imminent upheaval has the issue of potential heavy-handedness; from each “unsinkable” boast in the first half of Titanic, to every foreboding mention of the World Trade Center in Moshfegh’s novel, it can feel like someone is winking at you insistently. And yet, it also makes sense that artists repeatedly return to these events, trying to contextualise and understand them through new stories.
TVNZ’s Sunday Theatre film A War Story is another addition to this crowded canon. It begins when Peter Arnett (John Leigh), an acclaimed New Zealand-born journalist, learns that someone named Osama Bin Laden (George Kanaan) has declared war on America with a level of sincerity that demands to be taken seriously. Arnett decides to seek out and speak with Bin Laden. But we, the viewers, sense something he doesn’t: the seconds ticking away towards 9/11.
The thought of a plucky Kiwi journalist interviewing Osama Bin Laden might sound unlikely, but it’s true. Arnett is hardly a household name in New Zealand, but has a formidable career, which includes a 1966 Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam War reporting and becoming the face of CNN’s Gulf War coverage.
A War Story, however, tells the story of Arnett’s bid to get face time with the infamous Bin Laden. What director John Laing sacrifices in terms of character development is gained in forward-moving momentum, with the real tension coming from contrasting the interview with what we know now. Arnett is joined on this covert mission by two Brits, producer Peter Bergen (Tim Carlsen) and cameraman Peter Jouvenal (Ben Van Lier.) After a long journey into Afghanistan punctuated by pat-downs and reassuring everyone they’re not American, they finally meet the man himself.
The interview scene is given time to breathe, with Bin Laden and Arnett verbally thrusting and parrying despite the best efforts of the former’s media adviser to control things. “It was a relief to hear that you’d been spared,” offers Arnett, regarding a recent assassination attempt. “Otherwise you would have had no programme!” counters Bin Laden. Having watched footage of the original interview it’s clear, and unsurprising, that A War Story chose to streamline the dialogue between the two men. This means we miss out on Bin Laden’s timeless line, “mentioning the name of Clinton provokes disgust and revulsion,” but instead we meet his son, who is resolutely fearless about his father’s ambitions.
John Leigh’s Arnett is cheerfully driven and able to roll with the punches. Leigh – best-known to local audiences as Shortland Street’s Lionel Skeggins – does a great job, managing to bring as much of his inherent affability as possible to the role. I was initially sceptical of his accent, which sounded like an American attempting to imitate Barry Crump, but after watching footage of the real Arnett, damn if that’s not exactly how he speaks.
Tim Carlsen as Peter Bergen is handsomely competent, while Ben Van Lier as Peter Jouvenal honestly sounds Australian, but does provide some levity when he blithely interrupts the increasingly tense Bin Laden meeting to suggest getting mic’d up. Finally, George Kanaan gives us a disarmingly polite Bin Laden, who matches Arnett’s drive and political knowledge. He’s not given a lot to do for most of the film other than sinisterly eat boiled eggs or pensively gaze into the distance, but it’s all done with impassive, impressive gravitas.
Strangely, the lack of character interiority gives the film a neutral tone. Yes, Jouvenal’s camera gets smashed, but he was asked not to bring it, and why should anyone believe it’s not concealing a tracking device? Yes, Arnett is galled by Bin Laden’s views on America, but they are delivered graciously. I appreciated this thoughtfulness, yet it’s hard to know what anyone other than Arnett is really feeling which leaves the film ultimately feeling too cautious. I found myself wishing it was a documentary instead, to gain more insight into everyone’s experiences.
From where we now stand, it’s bleakly humorous when Arnett enthusiastically says, “I want to know what makes him tick!” as though Bin Laden were Quentin Tarantino or Courtney Love. Equally bleak is Arnett insisting that America is “tremendous – the promise of it, the spirit of it. I chose to become an American”. An opinion almost as implausible in 2019 as Bin Laden not being a globally infamous villain. As the trio leaves the secret hideout, Arnett concedes that the interview felt like a game – “but what did we miss?” Unfortunately, and now obviously, his answer came after flying into New York to visit his daughter on September 10, 2001.
Bin Laden’s closing promise for his future plans, “you will see and hear about it in the media, God willing,” are unsettling as 9/11 footage rolls, and even more unsettling in the original interview. It’s implied, but not asked in A War Story – given the candid nature of Arnett’s interview, could America have prevented this? The one time the film hits admirably hard is the shot of Arnett’s face watching the attacks in real time. It seems to ask, could he have done more?
If only hindsight was as heavy-handed as artistic foreshadowing.
A War Story is streaming on TVNZ OnDemand.
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us hire more journalists and do more investigations. Or get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.