After September 11, 2001, many in the media likened the brutal images and precise execution of the terror attacks to “a movie.” Yes, like my movie, commented Lawrence Wright in last year’s HBO special airing, My Trip to al-Qaeda, and he’s not just talking about the tragic events of 9/11.
The movie he refers to was The Siege, starring Denzel Washington, released in 1998, directed by Ed Zwick and co-written by Wright. It not only imagined a massive terror attack on America but a crackdown on civil liberties, anti-Muslim attitudes and torture that follows.
A few years later, in real life, Wright started tracing what led to the 9/11 attacks, and America’s unfortunate over-reaction to them (a theme he continued last night on CNN with Anderson Cooper). The HBO film concludes with graphic testimony about US torture, and Wright’s words: “Al Qaeda can’t destroy America. Only we can do it—to ourselves.”
The HBO film, directed by Alex Gibney, was based on Wright’s one-man show from 2006 that grew out of his brilliant Pulitzer Prize–winning book The Looming Tower. But all of that was set in motion, Wright told me in an interview, by the reaction of radicals to the trailer for The Siege—they blew up a Planet Hollywood in Capetown. The reason for that target? Bruce Willis, one of the film’s co-stars, was a part-owner of the chain. Two people died in the blast.
After 9/11, The Siege became the top-renting DVD in America, “making me the first profiteer of the war on terror,” he admits in the film. He decided to write his book The Looming Tower partly out of “guilt” for his movie causing that Capetown bombing. “That bomb was really aimed at me,” he said, ”or at my imagination.” He wrote the book to “find out why.”
So, a few months after 9/11, he found himself in Cairo, where he had taught in 1969 (key hijacker Atta later attended the same school), on the trail of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. In the course of his research he interviewed numerous unsavory characters, which produced, he admits, “moral qualms.” In the film he is shown behind the wheel in London getting tips from a local driving instructor—an Islamist radical on the lam from authorities in Egypt. He’d been convicted of a terror attack that led to the death of a young girl.
At another point in the film, Wright muses that if he did snare an interview with Osama, would he reach for his notepad—or stab him with “a bread knife”?
Later, his book completed, he needed a break from the grimness, and approached New Yorker colleague John Lahr with the notion of writing a musical comedy of some sort. Wright, a former Rolling Stone writer, plays keyboards in an Austin band called WhoDo. But impressed with the work of Anna Deveare Smith in turning nonfiction into gripping theater, he changed course, and decided to try “stand up.” My Trip to al-Qaeda debuted at the New Yorker festival in 2006 and later had a very successful six-week run in Soho.
The HBO film came about after Gibney (who directed Taxi to the Dark Side and several other acclaimed documentaries) caught a performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington and told Wright it could be a real “cinematic experience,” with the screen behind him on stage “a portal” that could take readers anywhere in the world. “It’s fascinating for me to have written articles and books to now use other forms,” Wright told me. “But you can only reach so many on a stage—a movie can reach so many more, and go around the world, and last for all time.”
I wondered why the play, and film, left out the run-up to 9/11 and the actions of a hero in the book, FBI agent John O’Neill, who had tried to sound an alert for a likely attack—and later died in the rubble of the Twin Towers. “I’d told that story,” Wright explained to me. “But my friends had asked me, what was it like talking to these [radical terrorist ] characters?. The truth is, I hadn’t really sorted that out myself, and that was disturbing to me. Writing the play was a way to sort out my feelings, and the film is a continuation.”
He decided that if Americans could relate to one person’s struggles they might better understand their own reactions. It was also his way of getting at “what happened to our country after 9/11. What happened to the promise we made to be different…to stand for true American values.”
One more angle: the film aptly portrays the negative effect the treatment of women in some cultures, especially in Saudi Arabia, has on the men, who are “nearly incapacitated by longing.” Well, only incapacitated until they take up arms or strap on suicide vests. (In a rare light moment in the film, Wright notes that some call the heavily robed women BMOs—“black moving objects.”) Wright told me that when he was mentoring newspaper staffers in Saudi Arabia not long ago he was “constantly flabbergasted by the lack of understanding between the sexes.”
But he also noted that most of the women were not at all rebellious: “I had thought Saudi women would be a force for change, but this was not really true.”
Greg Mitchell’s latest book is Atomic Cover-Up.