How many times do you look at a digital clock and see that it reads “9:11”? I swear it happens to me at least twice a day, and each time my mind is catapulted back to that beautiful late summer’s morning and the most seismic moment of our century.
I’m a 9/11 obsessive for several reasons: First, and most obviously, due to the sheer enormity and horror of the atrocity. Second, the undeniably cinematic nature of the attacks. Third, because it was a day that showcased the best and worst of humanity, irrevocably changing our world. And finally, simply because the Twin Towers were my favorite buildings in my favorite city. (I’ve never subscribed to the old joke that the towers were the boxes the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building came in.)
For me, no visit to New York was ever complete without an hour staring up at those gleaming steel monoliths from Battery Park. One of the most joyous moments of my career came when I met and interviewed Philippe Petit, the French tightrope artist who traversed the two towers (eight times!) one glorious summer’s morning in 1974.
His story, of course, is retold in James Marsh’s wonderful Oscar-winning 2007 documentary “Man on Wire,” and that film proves the very simple rule for works about the Twin Towers and 9/11: The documentary is always superior to the fictional retelling. And yes, “Man on Wire” is very much a film about 9/11, personified by its use of a still image showing New Yorkers, mouths agape, staring up at the towers in disbelief, 27 years before thousands more would repeat that same pose in more tragic circumstances.
While “Man on Wire” soars on gossamer wings, Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk” (2015) is horribly earthbound by comparison, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Petit weighed down by a combination of unconvincing special effects and a leaden script.
“The Walk” also suffers from the same problem that damned Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” and Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” before it: excessive doses of sentimentality.
Mind you, they’re masterpieces in comparison to Charlie Sheen’s woefully ill-conceived “9/11” (2017) – perhaps the only example in celluloid history of a man being outacted by an elevator button.
- U.S. COVID booster shot: Why Israel went for it, and is it working
- How 9/11 changed your life and country: 15 stories
- Why is Hollywood so afraid of COVID?
- You can't make this stuff up: Israel's new, true and unbelievable TV dramas
9/12 and beyond
Ironically, Sheen is one of those “9/11 truthers” who has questioned the official September 11 narrative. And while I would happily never see him on screen ever again, I would love to see a documentary about all of those conspiracy theorists who claim 9/11 was an “inside job.” (Some surprising names on that list include Mark Ruffalo and the late Ed Asner, who really should have known better.)
This highlights the fact that even 20 years on, there are still subjects about 9/11 that merit further coverage and investigation. Indeed, the best in the latest batch of documentaries and films on the subject all advance the story in some way – either through the voices of survivors or by examining what came in the attack’s wake.
I would strongly recommend that any conspiracy theorist watch “9/11: Inside the President’s War Room” (Apple TV+) – if only so they can witness quite how clueless President George W. Bush and his administration were on September 11. As the attacks unfolded in New York, Washington and onboard Flight United 93, Dubya and his team spent the day chasing their own shadows, always seemingly the last to know anything.
Featuring interviews with all of the major players from the time – including former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, discussing events as if he were breathlessly voicing the trailer for a Hollywood disaster movie – the 90-minute film perfectly illustrates my biggest problem with all of the conspiracy theories: Where they ascribe events on 9/11 to Machiavellian masterminds and the deep state, I see incompetents and a deeply dysfunctional state, caught spectacularly unawares due to superpower hubris and petty in-house rivalries where ego was the dominant factor (catastrophically in the cases of both the CIA and FBI, but also New York’s police and fire departments).
A cynic might suggest the reason Dubya lingered in that Florida school classroom on the morning of 9/11, after news of the Twin Towers attacks first broke, is that he was desperately in need of more education himself. And 20 years on, wisdom still appears to be refusing to take his phone calls.
For instance, he sums up his initial reaction to the attacks thusly: “One thing [now] on the ‘to-do’ list was to kick some ass.” And later, reflecting on the magnitude of 9/11, he tells us: “It was a day full of a lot of sadness.”
“War Room” shows us what political paralysis looks like, and that while Air Force One was jumping from air force base to air force base, the real drama was unfolding on the ground. National Geographic offers a time capsule of those events with its exhaustive six-part series “9/11: One Day in America.”
A collaboration with the 9/11 Memorial Museum, the series seeks to tell the “full story through the eyes of those who witnessed, suffered and survived.” Yet while this is a forensic recreation of experiences during that day, there is no analysis of what took place, no finger-pointing, no sense that this series couldn’t have been made at any point over the past 20 years.
It draws heavily on the amazing footage shot by the French brothers Jules and Gédéon Naudet that was first seen in “9/11” – the definitive 2002 documentary that captured events unfolding in the WTC on September 11.
There are lots of heartbreaking stories here, but also tales of heroism and bravery that serve as a worthy memorial to the fallen. But maybe because of that official connection with the 9/11 Memorial Museum, the series lacks a critical eye to consider other key aspects, including what happened in the days after September 11.
Luckily, “No Responders Left Behind” (Discovery+ in the U.S.) provides a necessary rejoinder. This documentary spotlights the lobbying efforts of Jon Stewart (yes, that Jon Stewart) and demolition supervisor-turned-activist John Feal to make Congress compensate the first responders whose health was destroyed after working at Ground Zero in the months following the disaster. Amazingly, Rob Lindsay’s simple but effective film shows that it is possible to love Stewart even more.
Another must-see documentary is “Surviving 9/11” (available to download on Cellcom tv and via Kan), which interviews about a dozen people who were either in the Twin Towers or the Pentagon that day, or had loved ones who were entwined in events – most dramatically, the widowed wife of the co-pilot of United Flight 93.
What’s most remarkable here is how people react in different ways to grief – from the British father and son who have both adopted radically different coping – or, more accurately, non-coping – mechanisms for losing a family member, to the widow who wore black every day for four years after her firefighter husband died in what she somehow manages to describe in tragicomic terms.
This is a profoundly moving film, beautifully shot by director Arthur Cary. It’s one I suspect people will choose to revisit, each time stunned by the ability of people to persevere through the greatest of tragedies. One word of caution: Some of the subjects, including TV news reporter N.J. Burkett and U.S. Air Force pilot Heather Penney, appear in other 9/11 documentaries currently doing the rounds, so you may want to spread the docs out in order to avoid a sense of repetition.
No strategy in the War Room
Another documentary taking September 11 as a starting point is the five-part Netflix series “Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror.” In truth, there is little here about 9/11 that hasn’t been covered better elsewhere. However, where this series excels is in focusing on the War on Terror, in particular America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan.
Interviewing a mix of people, including Bush administration lackeys, foreign policy experts in D.C. who make up “the Blob” that either advocates for interventionism or isolationism, soldiers who were on the ground in Afghanistan and former secret service agents, this makes a compelling case that the War on Terror was a battle without a strategy and had no hope of ever succeeding. To taste victory, you first have to define what that looks and feels like.
Most damning is the cost of that (endless) war effort. This includes the loss of life (U.S. and allied soldiers; civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq), the moral cost of adopting the most brutal of interrogation techniques and the sheer mountain of money wasted over the years.
One anecdote reveals how an Afghan general was allowed to pick a “forest green” camouflage uniform for his army, even though less than 4 percent of Afghanistan is actually forested, and even though the pattern chosen was 30 to 40 percent more expensive to produce.
Throw in the debacle that is Guantanamo Bay, which still has about 40 detainees rotting in it, and it’s impossible not to agree with the counterterrorism expert who concludes: “Twenty years past 9/11 and we’re still trying to figure out what to do with the people that attacked us.”
More conventional fare is on offer in two new films: “Come From Away” (Apple TV+) and “Worth,” which appears on Netflix pretty much everywhere bar Israel (presumably for rights reasons).
“Come From Away” is a recording of the hit Broadway musical, and it’s impossible not to be swept up in its heady, life-affirming spirit – and all this despite sporting some of the most unpromising song titles outside of “Jeffrey Dahmer: The Musical.” (I give you “38 Planes,” “The Dover Fault” and “Blankets and Bedding.”)
The genius of “Away” is how it distills the true story of the 7,000 “plane people” who were forced to stay in the remote Canadian town of Gander, Newfoundland, after U.S. airspace was shuttered for five days on September 11, and turns it into such disarming fun.
Still, if Newfoundland-inspired folk music isn’t your thing, you may prefer the 2018 documentary “You are Here: A Come From Away Story,” which recounts the real-life stories behind some of those “Newfoundlanders” and “Come from aways” (i.e., non-islanders) whose experiences lie at the heart of the musical.
“Worth,” meanwhile, is based on the true story of Ken Feinberg – the special master of the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund who was charged with the task of devising a formula to compensate the thousands of claimants who personally suffered losses on 9/11.
“We need to calculate a dollar value for the human loss, whether it’s loss of limb or loss of life,” he explains early on in the film, with a thick Boston accent delivered by Michael Keaton in a rarely subtle yet always engaging performance.
I first came across Feinberg in a 2002 New Yorker profile called “The Calculator,” and he’s definitely a suitable subject for cinematic treatment. He’s also still putting a price on human lives for the government, having worked on the Tree of Life synagogue killing spree, among others, in recent years.
It may sound like the faintest of praise to call “Worth” one of the best 9/11-inspired dramas out there, but it’s up there with Paul Greengrass’ gut-wrenching restaging of the United 93 hijacking. Yes, it does play a little fast and loose with some of the facts. (I particularly disliked the horribly contrived, clearly fake way in which Feinberg witnesses one of the 9/11 attacks.) But you may be surprised afterward to learn quite how many of the characters are drawn from real life. Worth seeing, for sure.