The TV special reports made for the anniversary of September 11th offer a myriad of ways to go back to hell. There are harrowing interviews with survivors and people who have lost loved ones; uplifting accounts of rescues, agonizing stories about people who died trying to rescue victims; images of conflagration, chaos and shock as seen in morning papers and streets covered in a thick layer of ash; images of rescuers and volunteers digging through the wreckage.
A clarification: I took these descriptions from the schedule of this newspaper to mark the tenth anniversary of the tragedy. But they apply equally well to this year, the 20th anniversary. In documentary after documentary, on cable television, on streaming and on open TV, we can hear the calls made to air traffic controllers asking for help, repeated over and over again.
Over and over again, we can replay the terrifying and shocking images of a commercial passenger plane being projected against the North Tower of the World Trade Center, captured by a documentary filmmaker who accompanied firefighters on a routine mission. We can be reminded, countless painful times, that it was a beautiful September morning with blue skies.
Respondents have aged. The time has passed. The children who fled their schools or lost their parents that morning are now adults (two documentaries, broadcast on the History Channel and Discovery+, focus on some of them).
But the story, as it is related, is much the same. Twenty years later, is there anything left to be said about 9/11? Of course yes. It would be unthinkable to simply let the date go unnoticed. A harder question is: is there anything more to be said than there was five, ten or 15 years ago? Yes there is. But actually saying it can be riskier.
The treatment given by TV to 9/11 has changed over the years, little by little and in parts. The adrenaline-fueled urgency of “24 Hours” gave way to the moral relativism of “Homeland”. MSNBC has finally ended its harrowing tradition of reprising coverage of the attacks live. But the general approach of the memorial special reports, aimed directly at honoring the deaths and sacrifices of a particular and unique day, has been preserved, in a kind of ritual familiarity.
For 20 years, the repeated refrain has been: remember, remember, remember. Memory is so ingrained in the language of 9/11—“let us never forget”—that it implies that it is mandatory and sufficient for future generations to just remember, listening again to the narratives and reviewing the images of a terrible and dreadful day, in instead of making the connection between that day and the years of history that followed.
But is 9/11 a day or is it an era? Was it the beginning of something or a continuation?
We can divide most of the special reports that mark this date between those that focus strictly on the day the Twin Towers fell and those that describe a great retreat to include in their eyes what emerged from the cloud of ash.
There are plenty of specials of the first type.
National Geographic’s four-part series “9/11: One Day in America” traces back in granular detail to that morning’s hideous experience. It is being streamed on Hulu; all programs mentioned here are currently streaming, with the exceptions mentioned.
A special episode of “60 Minutes” that will premiere on September 12 focuses on firefighters who survived the tragedy and others who went down. Apple TV+’s “9/11: Inside the President’s War Room” interviews George W. Bush and former members of his team about the decisions and chaos of that morning, making little reference to any decisions that followed — the invasion of Iraq, for example.
And the seven hours of new History Channel programming on 9/11 includes “9/11: Four Flights,” about planes hurled into towers and the Pentagon and what crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, as well as “9/11 : I Was There”, based on amateur videos (both premiered on the 11th).
These documentaries that recall the day of tragedy tend to be sincere and deeply respectful in tone; in many cases they have been meticulously researched and assembled. (I can’t comment on “Long Island Medium: In Memory of 9/11,” a TLV special that opens on Thursday and promises to bring victims’ families messages from the spirits of their dead loved ones.)
They benefit from two decades of factual research. For years, however, it has been difficult for any new report to match the urgency and punctuality of “9/11”, a film directed by Gédéon and Jules Naudet – the brothers who intended to make a documentary about firefighters and whose work yielded those famous images of the impact of the first plane with the tower—, broadcast by CBS in 2002. (CNN will broadcast it again on Sunday.)
Of course, focusing on the emotion and heroism of the day allows us to let go of everything that happened next. This narrow focus sticks to what we can all agree on.
It is safer, just as it is safer to teach about the American Civil War or the Jim Crow laws as horrors of the past, rather than showing them as events whose consequences are still present today.
The other possible approach is to decide that 20 years, an entire generation, is enough time to treat terrorist attacks as part of a greater historical era.
9/11 is not just in the past, as we can see from the bloody news that comes to us from Afghanistan. For viewers interested in understanding how the attacks led to two decades of military involvement, there’s Netflix’s five-part series “Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror,” which doesn’t shy away from focusing on past intelligence failures. to 9/11 and how the US mission gained scope across several administrations.
The series includes the voices of Afghan leaders and civilians, something that broadens our understanding. September 11, seen as a time, meant a turnaround for more than one country.
But the story of 9/11 is not limited to war and foreign policy, far from it. It affected American politics, internal antagonisms, and even American culture itself.
And two of the most memorable documentaries released on this 20th anniversary present 9/11 as an event that struck America’s democracy and its very soul.
The “America After 9/11” special from the “Frontline” series, which debuts on Tuesday (14) on PBS, features an interesting and disturbing juxtaposition of videos. First we see Republican and Democratic congressmen and senators joining their voices on the steps of the Capitol on the day of the attacks to sing “God Bless America.”
Two decades later, at the same location, an angry mob invades Congress in an attempt to reverse the results of an election.
It’s a provocatively drawn connection, but director Michael Kirk presents it in a lean way: the attacks unleashed a chain of actions and transformations—military quagmires, domestic mistrust and racism, the loss of trust in institutions—that was used by demagogues to undermined democracy and ultimately achieved Osama bin Laden’s goal of dividing and weakening America.
From the first moment, the special argues, America’s response to the attacks was driven by a paradox: Bush’s moral speech and the strategies of his deputy Dick Cheney, who declared that America would have to work with the “dark side” to manage to survive.
The dark side won, argues “America After 9/11”. It won when misleading claims about weapons of mass destruction were used to justify the war in Iraq; when images of torture emerged from Abu Ghraib prison; when illustrations of Barack Obama as Bin Laden circulated; when the media fueled hysteria around threats of terrorism, and when the 2016 election was won by a candidate who declared “I think Islam hates us” and used similar language to speak of people he labeled domestic enemies.
Seen in this light, the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, with its racist language and its fantasy of rescuing America from an insubstantial existential threat, was, says former Obama aide Ben Rhodes, “the logical conclusion” of the era of September 11th.
But the most comprehensive — and, I suspect, the one that will turn out to be the most memorable — of this year’s documentaries is the elegiac, irregular and combative “NYC Epicenters: 9/11-2021½” by Spike Lee, broadcast by HBO in four parts.
As the title suggests, “Epicenters” deals only partially with 9/11 and presents convincing arguments for claiming that the 9/11 era can only be captured with the widest possible lens. The documentary moves backwards, starting with the Covid-19 pandemic and moving backwards – through the Black Lives Matter movement, the 2016 and 2020 elections and beyond – until it reaches its starting point.
In Lee’s narrative, 9/11 is not just a matter of terrorism, but also the beginning of decades of calamity and upheaval.
The director’s interviews with hundreds of people, from high-ranking elected officials to heavy equipment operators at Ponto Zero, are warm, emotional and sometimes combative.
Spike Lee taunts every Boston Red Sox fan he talks to. When his interviewees need time to compose their ideas, he waits as long as necessary. In the case of the politicians, he lets the epithets fly freely (the captions refer to Donald Trump, in the words of rapper Busta Rhymes, as the “president of Agent Orange”).
We could argue about which director is more quintessentially New York. But Spike Lee’s kind of intense “New Yorkness” is perhaps most appropriate for this theme. Lee is affectionate and critical, impulses New Yorkers see as synonymous.
And his focus on diversity and the racial issue helps him locate less frequently heard voices in a story that has been told many times before. This is the case of the voices of the firefighters of the Vulcan Society for Black or the black flight attendant who remembers, with a feeling of guilt, having “racially discriminated” a Saudi passenger after 9/11.
Regrettably, “Epicenters” made the news mostly for something you won’t see in it: an extensive and bizarre section in the original final episode that gave credibility to conspiracy theorists who suggest the towers had been brought down by a controlled explosion.
Lee ended up cutting the entire section, and despite the radical cut, the shorter final version, which debuted on 9/11, actually flows better.
I can imagine a version of “Epicenters” that still covered conspiracy theories, not to legitimize them, but as an example of the paranoia that still runs rampant in a country lacking social trust – something Spike Lee rightly deplores when it comes to of anti-vaccine theories and the lies about the election that motivated some of the Capitol invaders.
There is a disturbing meta-lesson in the fact that the most nuanced of 9/11 documentaries to come out this year has become an example of the problems diagnosed themselves. But at least the resolution shows that criticism can make a difference and that it’s not too late to take history seriously and effect a change.