Wednesday, September 21, 2011

On DVD: "September 11th Memorial Edition"

Why do we do this to ourselves every year? With the tenth anniversary of the 9/11/01 attacks just in the rearview, it is worth contemplating why we, as a country, take such great pains on that anniversary to subject ourselves to reliving it—the TV specials, the remembrances, and inevitably, the “as it happened” re-airings of network news coverage from that day. We watch the events of that horrible morning replayed, one inevitable event after another, helplessly screaming at our televisions; nothing we do will change anything. The second plane will crash into the second tower, which will collapse 56 minutes later, and then the first tower will collapse 29 minutes after that, and watching those buildings crumble and take the lives of thousands of Americans is something akin to watching a snuff film. Why do we do it?

The answer is somewhere within 102 Minutes That Changed America, the Emmy-winning History Channel special that is the centerpiece of the network’s recent September 11th Memorial Edition DVD set. It is assembled in the “present tense” mold of such recent documentaries as History’s JFK: 3 Shots That Changed America (created by much of the same team) and the ESPN 30 for 30 entry “June 17th, 1994”—a style that eschews talking heads and narration from our vantage point, instead conveying the events on-screen as they occurred. Done right, it is a powerful and efficient style; directors Nicole Rittenmeyer and Seth Skundrick up the immediacy by assembling their film from over 100 different eyewitnesses with cameras, most of them amateurs, in something resembling real time. News tape is seen, and occasional radio and TV reports are heard (and overheard), but much of what we’re seeing and hearing is not the work of professionals.

It begins with an on-screen clock: the time is 8:48:42:17. An off-duty firefighter is calling in about some smoke coming out of the World Trade Center; eight blocks east, a pair of college girls shoot a home video of the tower (“Holy mofo, what is that?” one asks). Much of the home video is accompanied by the off-camera sounds of people on phones, assuring loved ones that they’re fine. One man, watching from a distance, muses “I hope it wasn’t a terrorist attack… This not good. Not good at all.”

As the fire in the tower burns, we start to make out figures near it, jumping, falling from that tremendous height, eighty-plus stories up. Eight blocks away, one of the girls tries to calm the other, who has seen those falling shapes: “Who’s to say it’s not, like, a chair?” Y’know, the kind of excuses and grapplings we’re all prone to when something bad happens. And then the second plane slams into the South Tower, and they react, as so many of us did, with utter horror. Their screams are blood-curdling: “OH MY GOD, it’s terrorists then! WHAT DO WE DO?!?”

That is a question a lot of people had to ask in the hours that followed. There is another, more famous image of that second impact—the low-angle shot of a man listening to a radio on the hood of his car as the plane hits behind him. The filmmakers had access to that shot, and indeed they used other footage from the same professional photographer. But they did not use that polished (and by now iconic) shot for that terrible moment. They went with the raw terror in the apartment of those two young women, because we all had that same realization at that moment, and all reacted, at different volumes, in much the same way.

In goes without saying that these visuals still have the power to shock and overwhelm us, and many of them are images that we’ve seen. But there is much that we have not: the injured on the ground, the people fainting nearby, and, as impossible as it is to stomach, all of those “jumpers” who we don’t talk about. But the images that are toughest to shake are the faces of the onlookers on the streets near the WTC, or seeing the live shot on a JumboTron in Times Square. They’re confused and worried at first, perhaps already a little scared, and as the morning progresses, those faces turn to stunned disbelief and pure shock. Those scenes are given extra weight by Brendon Anderegg’s ambient music, which is constant, urgent, and scary. When it is not heard, there is a strange musicality to the police radios and emergency calls that pop up in its place, even when they are infuriating us (“All I can tell you to do is sit tight,” says a 911 dispatcher to someone trapped inside the tower, “Just sit tight. I’m telling you to stay where you are! I’m hanging up!” And he does) or breaking us apart (in the buildings’ last moments standing, a voice on the scanner ticks off all of the fire companies inside the buildings, and there are so, so many of them).

Skundrick’s editing is astonishingly good. He masterfully interweaves the footage from the various sources; though few people are seen, we start to connect threads, recognize voices, identify with them, feel for them. On that day, and in the retrospectives that have followed, we saw shaken yet undeniably polished and professional newscasters; here, with the story told primarily by onlookers and eyewitnesses, the panic and fear is palpable, and chilling. Extraordinary footage is captured; we still weep when those towers fall, but we’re not prepared for the gut-punch of those shots of firefighters going in to those buildings, minutes before (as we know now) they came down.

That horrible feeling, that unsettling vibration of knowing more than the people on screen and being utterly powerless to convey that knowledge, becomes an inescapable fact of the viewing experience—of this film, of any of those 9/11 “as it happened” presentations. Look at Al Roker and Katie Couric smiling. They have no idea. Listen to the newscasters talking about a “small plane crash.” They have no idea. Look at those firefighters glancing up at the coffin they’re walking into. They have no idea. And they don’t. But no matter how many times we watch this footage, they’re still going to march on in; it is as certain and inevitable and crushing as that ticking clock.

The second disc of September 11th Memorial Edition includes three shorter History Channel specials; none of them come anywhere close to the visceral power of 102 Minutes, and frankly, that’s just fine. Hotel Ground Zero focuses on “the forgotten building nestled between” the Twin Towers—the 22-story Marriott World Trade Center that was brought also down that morning. The film introduces a few guests and some staff and firefighters, then intercuts their stories throughout that morning. The narration is rather bland (“Nobody could have predicted what was about to happen next”), but there is some powerful content—particularly the story of D.C. lawyer Frank Razzano, who shares the thoughts he had in what he thought were the last moments of his life. The conclusion of his story—and of firefighter Jeff Johnson, who saved his life—is genuinely moving, and is the kind of documentary filmmaking that this sort of special can do (and 102 Minutes can’t).

Hotel Ground Zero’s producer/director Steve Humphries served the same function on The Miracle of Stairway B, which uses the story of 14 survivors—an office worker and several firefighters—trapped in the stairway of the North Tower to convey the larger narrative of the sacrifice of the firefighters (343 lost their lives that day). Several moments are strong (the intermingled descriptions of the moment of collapse above them, that horrible moment), though the continued replays of the collapse in the closing minutes verge on insensitivity. More affecting are the testimonials of the firefighters (one remembers his captain leading them in with the words: “Boys, they’re tryin’ to kill us. Let’s go”) and the tapes of the radio communication between the trapped men and the crew looking for them (“I’m comin’ for you, brother!”)

If The Miracle of Stairway B provides the firefighters’ perspective, The Day The Towers Fell provides that of the news media—specifically, the professional and amateur photographers who took the harrowing still photographs that define much of our memory and impression of that day, many of whom risked their lives, some of whom lost theirs. It is a somber, respectful documentary (the producer, editor, and director is Sammy Jackson), evocative and solemn, forgoing narration and instead using stark quotes on a black screen, snippets from interviews (mostly with photographers), and their haunting photographs. It is expertly edited, with moments of real potency. Particularly memorable are New York Times photog Angel Franco’s memories of the portfolio he created of WTC employees mere weeks before the tragedy; Thomas E. Franklin’s story of the iconic flag-raising photograph; and New York Daily News photographer David Handschun’s vivid recollections, summed up in his closing statement: “Anybody who covered September 11th took a field trip through hell.”

History’s September 11th Memorial Edition contains several powerful and well-made documentaries—particularly 102 Minutes That Changed the World, which may be the finest film yet made about that horrible day. And yet the original question still remains: why would we want to subject ourselves to them? After careful consideration, the answer may be in the visceral way that 102 Minutes affects its viewers—it is so harrowing to watch that it shakes us up, which may be exactly what we need at this point, not out of some lip service loyalty to the notion of “never forget” (a sentiment mind-bogglingly inadequate in its simplicity and troublesome in the ramifications of its post-9/11 jingoism), but out of a necessity to simply feel something that is recognizable and human, and thus separated from slogans and politics and fear-mongering and war and xenophobia and hate and paranoia and conspiracy theories and “truth.” Too often in the past decade, we have allowed September 11th to become an abstraction. In the best of these films, it is anything but—it is real, and present, and terrifying.

"September 11th Memorial Edition" is available now on DVD. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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