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TELEVISION REVIEW

Fragmented 'Path' tries to cover too much ground

With all the ado about ABC's new docudrama ``The Path to 9/11," one point has gotten lost. While Clinton administration alums such as Madeleine Albright protest its perceived inaccuracies, and conservatives defend its bias, and many curious viewers plan to tune in to see for themselves, it's still not a very good piece of dramatic storytelling.

Like ``The Reagans," which CBS dropped amid political pressure in 2003, it offers the occasion for a political wing-ding but not for a very satisfying viewing experience. It's a few decently crafted terrorism set pieces -- the manhunt for 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef , a near capture of Osama bin Laden -- loosely strung together into the semblance of an epic.

The five-hour miniseries was probably doomed to fail creatively, not for lack of ambition but for having too much ambition. The story in ``The Path to 9/11," which premieres Sunday and Monday at 8 p.m. on Channel 5, is just too massive and unwieldy to fit neatly into two sittings. Writer Cyrus Nowrasteh tries to encapsulate the 9/11 Commission's report on the terror attacks (with the added help of two books and interviews), and he winds up with a globe-jumping mass o' plots. ``The Path to 9/11" never quite arrives at narrative coherence and depth.

Dramatizing the roots of 9/11 in a two-parter is like trying to fit the origin and politics of the entire AIDS crisis into one movie. Oh wait, that was ``And the Band Played On," and it failed, too. ``The Path to 9/11" would have fared better as an eight-or-so episode miniseries like HBO's ``Band of Brothers," so it could devote more focus to each of its many fragments. With the kind of time that series TV offers but movies don't, director David L. Cunningham could have made each of the pieces of his puzzle richer and more engaging.

The miniseries operates thusly: The 1993 bombing leads to a van which leads to a mosque which leads to an informant who leads to a cell which leads to Yousef who leads to Pakistan and the attempted assassination of Benazir Bhutto which leads to the Philippines and so on and so forth for five hours. (ABC is airing the series without commercials). Journalist John Miller's 1998 interview with Osama bin Laden, for instance, or the CIA's efforts to capture bin Laden with General Massoud of the Northern Alliance, could have been movies in themselves. But here they are diminished within a crowded canvas.

The vague through-line in ``The Path to 9/11" is FBI agent John O'Neill (Harvey Keitel), who was ultimately killed in the towers months after he retired from the Bureau. O'Neill is the hero of the miniseries, fighting not only terrorism but his own government's inability to properly fight terrorism. ``No one's taking terrorism seriously," he complains. O'Neill's intermittent appearances represent Cunningham and Nowrasteh's effort to turn the tragedy into a more traditional story with a central character, but the half-hearted effort doesn't succeed in tightening the movie's structure.

Most of the controversy surrounding ``The Path to 9/11" is about the way it portrays counterterrorism workers like O'Neill losing ground thanks to governmental bureaucracy and intelligence errors. In a letter to Robert Iger of Disney, which owns ABC, former Secretary of State Albright objected specifically to a scene in which she is shown refusing to support a strike against bin Laden without alerting the Pakistani government. In another letter to Iger, former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger complained about a sequence that shows him similarly impeding the chase.

Due to many other complaints, along with a letter-writing campaign, ABC has said it is still editing the miniseries, which means some of the more blatant finger-pointing in reviewers' copies may not appear in the final product.

One egregious moment that is likely to remain, however, features Patricia Heaton hamming it up as Barbara Bodine , the US ambassador to Yemen. After the terrorist bombing of the USS Cole, Heaton's Bodine refuses to help O'Neill and his FBI crew in a scene that is painfully over-the-top.

``Mr. O'Neill, you are the epitome of the ugly American," she says. Suddenly the movie changes awkwardly from suspense thriller to psychodrama/Emmy grab. As Condoleezza Rice , Penny Johnson Jerald also strikes a wrong note, looking almost campy with a black mark pasted onto her teeth. Jerald, best known as President Palmer's diabolical wife on ``24," is arch here, as well. Otherwise, the large ensemble cast of ``The Path to 9/11" is good enough, and in the case of Nabil Elouhabi , who plays Yousef, chilling. Perhaps Elouhabi in ``The Ramzi Yousef Story" is in order?

Indeed, ``The Path to 9/11" could have great value as an outline for better stories to come.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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