Frontline: The Man Who Knew (DVD Review)7 Nov, 2011 By: Mike Clark
Though you can obviously go other places beyond a “Frontline” documentary to take the equivalent of a 700-level college course in irony, there aren’t many other places where you’ll get a bigger dose of the stuff than in this portrait of the late former FBI agent John O’Neill. “Former” is the operative word here — and though this DVD release is a tad off in commemorating this past September’s 10th anniversary of 9/11, it is (either by accident or design) very well timed to the release of Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, which will inevitably deal with the do’s and don’t of Bureau image-making and the protection of one’s in-house turf.
Before almost anyone else — and at least back to the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 — O’Neill caught onto the fact that al-Qaeda was up to something on a mammoth scale and tried to get his colleagues and those in the Justice Department to take heed. To this degree, he had many allies in positions of power who recognized that on this issue he was clearly “The Man” — and not a few enemies who thought him too much of a maverick to represent the Bureau, especially in any powerful capacity.
O’Neill was a flashy dresser (which wasn’t the FBI way) and enjoyed nightlife; he was dining at Elaine’s until the early a.m. the evening before he died (more on this later). He was intense, and, as even friends conceded, had “sharp elbows” in the work arena. He didn’t like being constrained by the Bureau’s Criminal Division and wanted to fight al-Qaeda from a different vantage point within — which naturally ruffled those who worked in the Criminal Division. He gave the impression of being a tighter husband and family man than he was, and his longtime female companion didn’t learn for two or three years that was married. Still, she remained devoted and is interviewed in this documentary.
Among his adversaries were former FBI Director Louis Freeh (no stranger to controversy); Thomas J. Pickard (acting director after Freeh’s departure and the individual O’Neill suspected of leaking career-killing info to the New York Times for an article); and Barbara Bodine, the former Ambassador to Yemen who clashed with O’Neill’s tough-guy approach to the republic when investigating the bombing of the USS Cole (Bodine thought Yemen a budding democracy that deserved diplomacy while O’Neill simply wanted to hunt for thugs). When O’Neill took a brief break back in the U.S., Bodine denied his re-entry, and he was marginalized. The other factor here was the subject of that Times article: O’Neill had once left his official briefcase inside a room when he went outside to facilitate his cell phone reception — whereupon it was stolen (just for a while and with no damage done, other than to O’Neill) by a petty thief.
By this time, he was out of the loop when rumblings about a pending al-Qaeda attack began to emerge during the summer of 2001 — so much that he resigned from the Bureau and eventually became (through some string-pulling by friends) head of Security at the World Trade Center just 19 days before the 9/11 attacks that came the morning after he warned friends at Elaine’s that he feared something big was coming down.
Written and directed by longtime “Frontline” royalty Michael Kirk (of Bush’s War, Inside the Meltdown and nearly 70 more), the documentary gives O’Neill partisans the opportunity to lob a few vindictive bombs, though most of them bite their tongues or choose their words very carefully the way seasoned professionals often do. But the overall impression one gets is fairly disgusting and proves that while “suits” have their organizational place, mavericks do as well. And when it comes to suits, have you ever noticed that no one ever makes a documentary about them?