Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Same 9/11 Story; A Dozen New Anniversary Documentaries-- Which Are Worth Watching?...

Whenever a national tragedy strikes, nature or otherwise, people flock to coverage of it. Some are adrenaline junkies, desperate to see new footage of the action, watching again and again trying to connect or feel something. Others are looking for "just the facts, ma'am," desiring to learn a little something about the way decisions are made by those in power during trying times. Still others want to hear personal accounts and stories, to get to know those who may have been more deeply or at least personally affected. September 11th brought all of those people together and then some. In the ten years since the terrible attacks, documentary after documentary poured out of filmmakers and amateurs with handheld cameras alike, all desperate to share the news their own way so they could begin to process their grief.

Now that it is ten years later, some of those original special programs have been retooled a bit to incorporate "where are they now" footage while others are seeing the light of day for the very first time. From Discovery to National Geographic, the History Channel to Showtime, the reality show that will be king over the next few weeks is "Remembering 9/11." Armed with a coffee tabletop full of screeners, I set out to power through all of the offerings-- some which I had seen before and some which I only felt like I had seen before-- to select the ones I feel are must see's. And which ones aren't.

Rebirth (premiering on Showtime) follows five survivors from New York City not merely in the initial days after the attacks but through the last ten years. There is a teenager whose Wall Street working mother died that day, a construction worker who helped with clean-up efforts and has consistently been drawn back to the ground site since, a young woman whose fiance was a firefighter killed in the towers collapse, a woman who was in one of the towers when the plane hit and suffered second-degree burns over her face and arms, and a firefighter who lost his brethren and later went to work for Giuliani. Through a combination of talking heads and home movies over the years we get to know those who were left behind as they sort through their loss. Sometimes it was loss of another person in their lives, sometimes loss of purpose, and sometimes loss of themselves. But for the first time we get a detailed look at what the events of the day did to the human psyche-- how it changed the way we think, feel, and relate. How it affected our ability to live so-called "normal" lies. Rebirth is perhaps the most respectful documentary profiling real people that I have ever seen. Though it, like so many others, starts with the 1010 WINS audio about September 11th, never once do they show images of the planes hitting the towers. They respect their subjects, as well as the audience. Perhaps it is because I like closure in every story, even the simplest of high-speed pursuits on the freeways out here in Los Angeles, but the fact that someone (James Whitaker, in this case) finally considered the rest of the story-- not just what happened on the day but what has occurred in the years after-- makes this one even more poignant. You may not have a similar story to any of the five subjects profiled, but undoubtedly you felt their pain. And by watching them heal and move on, you are given permission to, as well. I understand why this documentary needed so many years in the making, but its message is something we (or at least I) could have used years earlier.

It seems almost a little too obvious that I would gravitate towards a project entitled When Pop Culture Saved America. Let's face it: there is never a time when pop culture didn't save me personally. But 9/11 was so much bigger than just me. And in truth this documentary interviewing some of the biggest stars of the last decade (and today) feels tailor made for those of us who grew up grasping at whatever straws we could from movies, music, television, and celebrity. While hearing their stories-- where they were and what they experienced-- more than ever it becomes apparent that the stars are truly "just like us." But they have much tougher jobs to do. Because while so many of us could fall apart and grieve in all of its messy nature, they were in front of cameras and in front of the world and therefore expected to be a lot more poised. Some of them-- like Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa-- were even taping a live show as the horror show unfolded in their city just miles away (admittedly their show was never aired in full, as every network cut to a live news feed and stayed that way for almost three days). And through the specials, special episodes, concerts, and telethons that occurred immediately after the terrorist attacks, recounted here, the state of grace of what is usually a salacious, superfluous industry was never more apparent. These are people who were turned away from other kinds of aid because they didn't have training in medical or construction fields. So they did what they did best by entertaining. In part it helped average citizens escape the horrors of the world outside their window for a few minutes a day, and in part it helped them move on simply by showing that life must go on. But mostly these recognizable names and faces from across mediums and cities (Ray Romano, Idina Menzel, Jane Leeves, Frances Sternhagen, Dan Rather, Denis Leary, cast members from Third Watch) rallied for worthy cause. Still, they had their own stories and experiences to share, and now they're finally getting their own time and place in which to do so. This one tries to do a lot-- to weave a lot of very distinct stories altogether, and that leaves some segments feeling more rushed than I would like. And for as much as it tries to do, it still leaves out a big one: there's no Mariah Carey! Not only as a native New Yorker did her voice need to be present within this piece (in my not-so-humble opinion), but also the ironic timing of "Never Too Far" being released on 9/11 was something that has never before been explored. And that song-- and that song alone-- got me through those days, so I'd love to know what got her through.

9/11: Day That Changed The World comes from the Smithsonian Channel and tries really hard to just provide the details of the day-- details like airport security camera footage of the hijackers which wasn't available for awhile after the fact but now cuts together quite nicely with close-ups of the plane(s) plunging into the towers. And that's all we really could take away from this one. Other than the dry narration of Martin Sheen, who doesn't always sound like he agrees with, let alone believes, what he is reading, this documentary really doesn't offer any new information. So instead it seems out to shock you with graphic imagery-- imagery, to which after all of this time, many of us might have found a way to become numb-- imagery that repeats on-screen in an almost taunting and combative manner, daring you to look away. It's a cheap ploy, and it counteracts the credibility because shots are reused over and over when the narrative is moving along chronologically. It seems almost aimed at those who seek out the most gruesome images from crime scenes to get some sort of thrill or high-- and that is the last thing we would expect from this network, even with all of the powerful people they got to sit down and talk to them (on camera). If you have somehow managed to avoid learning what went on that day, we could see where this solidly historical retelling would come in handy, especially about mid-way through when we get a look at what went on with Air Force One that day. But after all of this time, you can't still be wondering about the "what" of the whole thing, right? And even if you are, honestly, there are better-produced, and less emotionally disrespectful, ones out there by the handful.

Making The Memorial feels like it belongs on HGTV but will actually air on the History Channel. It is a very technical documentary about the construction and artistry that went into designing the reflecting pools and bronze wall memorial that lives now where the Twin Towers once stood. Though the History Channel is saying this is a controversial story, because of the amount of time and effort the jury put into selecting the design, none of that really plays out on-screen, and in truth, it is hard to imagine how anyone would not want this image, a symbol of natural life, everything that lower Manhattan is not and everything the terrorists tried to strip away from us on that fateful day. We don't get to see the other designs in contention, nor learn what ultimately won this one the prize. But we do get hints as to the hows and whys of the additions of trees and lights, and we do get to hear from those creating it what it means for them to be doing so. This is not a tale of the rebuilding the tower itself, which is now being called a Freedom Tower but which really should be called the Capitalist Tower, especially considering Conde Nast was one of the first companies to sign a lease to occupy space within (but I digress). If you are interested in welding and architecture, or if you don't mind something a bit anticlimactic when the narrator worries they won't finish in time, you will love this one. If you're looking more for an emotional story about the people whose names are forever etched into the wall, this admittedly might not give you all you are looking for. It would have meant a lot more if they had waited to release this one until they had footage of the unveiling to include. There's your emotional impact.

Voices From Inside The Towers. I still can't even begin to talk about this one. You think you've seen and heard it all, especially ten years later, but this is not only a completely unique take but a completely devastating one. These are stories you've never heard before-- from survivors on the lower floors and audio tapes from calls from those saying their good-byes. It's hard to contemplate what's worse: hearing these people try to be strong as they know they're going to die or hearing the (proved to be mis)information of "stay put; the building is secure" yada yada. And then there's one guy who calls his wife to say he's okay as the second building hits in the background. And that may be as far as you can get. I know it's where I had to stop and take a few breaths for awhile before finishing.
Admittedly there are a couple of cases documented within that don't seem quite right, but we're still too close to this tragedy to really consider or investigate farther. Because on the backdrop of the day, smushed together with countless others just like it, it just sounds like a different kind of grief.

Forget Cloverfield or Paranormal Activity or even Contagion. If you want to watch a horror story unfold from first person point of view, you should just tune into 9/11: The Days After. Hollywood has nothing on the reality of this event and the paranoia and fear and simple uncertainty that came after, driving actions and subsequent events. Yes, countless civilians banded together to lend aid where they could, but confusion and desolation was even more rampant. Watching this account-- one that follows parents as they try to answer their young children's questions, as well as paramedics who know they don't have enough supplies, and emergency services personnel awaiting whatever comes next-- is like watching Armageddon unfold. Because of the way we have been trained by fictional films of similar accounts, you may find that you keep waiting for the moment when the monster comes or a force swipes the camera away and the screen fades to black. But that moment, of course, never materializes. Because the monster hit hours before, when the first plane struck the towers. And this is an account of the aftermath. Still, it truly is a miracle if everyone within came out the other side and was able to bounce back. Even if it has taken the last ten years.

And what if you just don't know what went on that fateful day and want to get the news without the graphic imagery? Nickelodeon has created a special Nick News with Linda Ellerbee half-hour program entitled "What Happened?: The Story of September 11 2001" designed to answers real life kids' questions. They talk to a combination of those who were kids on the day, not understanding what they were seeing, and those who are kids now and hear the story only as something that happened distantly in history. Can you believe some kids believe 9/11 didn't happen? I can't. Even if they are innocent enough not to have a hole in their hearts; how can they ignore the hole in New York's skyline? But ignorance is not only a symptom of youth. In New York City, 9/11/2001, finally aboard a train out of Manhattan hours after the towers fell, I heard a man say that he was certain the Irish was behind the attacks because of a somewhat flippant remark then-President Bush had made toward their country just a few weeks earlier. It's not enough to know something happened; we need to understand the hows and the whys or history is doomed to repeat itself.

If there is one documentary I think you can skip altogether, it would be National Geographic's George W. Bush interview, though. Whether you supported the forty-third President of the United States during his tenure or not, he has had ten years to reflect and think about how he would talk about his actions on the day and the subsequent ones after. He has had ample time to review footage of himself, consult with professionals, and come up with a way to justify his behavior. And quite frankly, I don't think it's necessary to hear it. What's done is done. He can't go back and change the things he said or did (or didn't do), and it is not honoring those we lost to hear him make excuses now.

Here is as complete a list as I could compile of the new documentaries premiering prior to the tenth anniversary of 9/11:

August 25
8pm - Rising: Rebuilding Ground Zero (DISC)* this is a two-week event that premieres tonight and will air through 9/11/11

Sunday, August 28
10pm - George W. Bush: The 9/11 Interview (Nat Geo)

Monday, August 29
10pm - CIA Confidential: 9/11 Mastermind (Nat Geo)

Tuesday August 30
10pm - 9/11: Where Were You? (Nat Geo)

Thursday, September 1
8pm - Nick News: What Happened? The Story of September 11, 2001 (Nick)

Sunday, September 4
9pm - 9/11: Heroes of the 88th Floor (TLC)

Monday, September 5
8pm - When Pop Culture Saved America: A 9/11 Story (BIO)
8pm - 9/11: The Day That Changed The World (Smithsonian)
10pm - Children of 9/11 (NBC)

Wednesday, September 7
9pm - Engineering Ground Zero (PBS)

Friday, September 9
9pm - 9/11: The Days After (History)

Saturday, September 10
7pm - 9/11: Ten Years Later (REELZ)
9pm - Voices From Inside the Towers (History)

Sunday, September 11
8:46am - Beyond 9/11: Portraits of Resilience (HBO)
8:46am - 102 Minutes That Changed America (History) - rerun
8pm - Making the 9/11 Memorial (History)
8pm - 9/11: 10 Years Later (CBS)
8pm - America Remembers: 9/11 (PBS)
9pm - 20/20: 9/11 Anniversary (ABC)

9pm - Twins of the Twin Towers (OWN)
9pm -
New York Philharmonic 10th Anniversary Concert for 9/11 (PBS)
9pm - Rebirth (SHO)
9pm - The Space Between (USA) - fiction
10:15pm - From The Ground Up (OWN)
10:21pm - Twin Towers (USA)

Ten years later I certainly don't have any lingering questions about what went on that fateful morning, but I do find myself still going back and trying to work through the "what I did after"s. I don't watch these documentaries to be masochistic or even to try to remember something I think I've forgotten. I know I have not forgotten; I know I can't even if I try. But that doesn't mean we should toss these shows aside, calling them "old news" or unnecessary. I know I can't change the past, but I can learn from it. We can all learn from it.

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