Few films are remembered for the last lines of dialogue. And even fewer films have the last lines of dialogue so chilling as Path to Paradise: The Untold Story of World Trade Center Bombing, 1997 docudrama directed by Leslie Libman and Larry Williams.
The plot deals with the first attempt to bring down World Trade Center in New York City on February 26th 1993, which, despite being ultimately unsuccessful, represented the most spectacular terrorist attack on US soil until that time. Nominal protagonist is John Anticev (played by Peter Gallagher), FBI agent who is reporting to the official inquiry about the attack and the role of his agency might had in events leading to the tragedy. Through his narration plot goes back to 1990 New York City where Omar Abdel-Rahman a.k.a. “The Blind Sheikh” (played by Andreas Katsulas), Egyptian Muslim leader preaches jihad against infidels – US government and Jews - to his loyal and increasingly militant followers. One of them is El Sayyid Nosair (played by Shaun Toub) who assassinates Meir Kahane, leader of Jewish extremists. Nosair is arrested, but FBI and other police agencies conclude that he was acting alone. During the trial Nosair’s circle of friends and Abdel-Rahman’s followers is joined by former security guard Emad Salem (played by Ned Eisenberg). After listening to their increasingly dangerous plans for bombings, Salem contacts FBI and offers to become informer. His claims are, however, considered unsubstantiated, his own shady past in Egypt makes him unreliable and demand for 500 US$ weekly compensation make authorities question his motives. With his warnings ignored, conspirators are free to continue with their plans and preparations intensify when Ramzi Yousef (played by Art Malik) arrives in September 1992 to assist them.
Produced by HBO with relatively low budget, Path of Paradise looks grandeur than it actually is mostly due to Leslie Libamn and her husband Larry Williams putting authentic New Jersey and New York locations to good use. Despite their background as creators of music videos and commercials, the style of the film is, for the most part, subservient to the story (except in few scenes that look a little bit too “artsy”). Script by Ned Curren tells the tale which looks interesting despite most of the audience knowing its ending. That tale is also very depressing, since it provides many instances where a little bit more common sense, inter-agency co-operation and competence among various law enforcement agencies could have prevented the tragedy. Script also tries to walk very thin line between pointing fingers at perpetrator’s religion as the main motivation for their violent act on one hand, and the need to protect civil liberties that many in the West have taken for granted. Terrorists in the film openly admit that they, thanks to American society being open, could plan and commit their acts with much more ease than in their oppressive Mid Eastern homelands. And the protagonist also admits that FBI and other agencies are, as long as the USA tries to live to its ideals of freedom and opportunity, will be one step behind to those that wish it harm. This idea is mentioned often in the film, although it never towards the conclusion many would adopt in light of later events, when 9/11 and COVID-19 led to eradication of centuries-old liberties for the sake of security.
Path to Paradise benefits from very good cast, with usually bland Gallagher being effective as representative of hapless forces of law. Many great character actors are very good in roles of conspirators, trying to rise above Arabophobic and Islamophobic cliches Hollywood has been accused in 1990s and 2000s. Terrorists are presented as group, despite being gathered by same beliefs, is rather diverse, with people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, races and levels of intelligence. Ned Eisenberg is very effective in the role of informer whose true allegiances and motives remain mystery until it is too late. Art Malik is, however, even more memorable as the bomb making expert whose prophetic last words when he watches still standing WTC towers while being extradited for trial remain one of the most memorable in cable television history. Path to Paradise is, despite good cast, relatively obscure title, most probably because nobody likes to be reminded that history can repeat itself and that its lessons, like in the case of WTC, may not be learned.
RATING: 6/10 (++)
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