Is 9/11 One Day or One Term?


Special TV programs for the anniversary of September 11 offer many ways to go back to hell. There are heartbreaking interviews with survivors and their loved ones; uplifting and painful tales of those who perished in the rescue attempt; images of fire, chaos and shock, as seen in the morning news and streets covered with ashes; Footage of first responders and volunteers digging the wreckage.

A clarification: I actually got these statements from this newspaper’s review program. 10th anniversary. But this year, they are applying for the same for the 20th.

In documentary after documentary, on cable, on air and on the air, you can hear air traffic control distress calls over and over. You can see over and over again the stunning footage of a plane crashing into the north tower of the World Trade Center, captured by a documentary filmmaker accompanying firefighters on a routine call. What a beautiful, blue September morning it was, you’ll remember after such a heartbreaking time.

Interview topics have aged. Time has passed. Children who missed school or lost their parents that morning are now grown adults. (Two different documentaries, History Channel and Discovery+ focus on these.) But as told, the story is mostly the same.

Twenty years later, is there anything to say about 9/11? Of course; simply ignoring it was unthinkable. A more difficult question: Is there anything? more than five, 10, 15 years ago?

There. But it might actually be riskier to say.

TV’s approach to 9/11 has changed bit by bit over the years. The adrenaline rush of “24” gave way to the moral gray tone of “Vatan”. MSNBC finally ended the brutal tradition replaying the live stream of the attacks. However, the general approach of commemorative specialties, with a strict focus on honoring the loss and sacrifice of a special day, has retained a kind of ritual familiarity.

For 20 years the refrain has been: Remember, remember, remember. Memory is so ingrained in the language of 9/11 – “Never forget” – that it is so ingrained as to imply that for future generations it is necessary and sufficient to simply remember, rather than reconsider and incorporate the narrative and depiction of a terrible day. to the following historical years.

But is 9/11 just a day or an era? Was it the beginning of something or a continuation? You can split most of the anniversary specials between those that focus closely on the day the towers fell, and those that step back to see what comes out of the dust.

There is plenty of the old kind. At National Geographic, the four-part series “9/11: A Day in America” ​​reassembles in detail the terrifying experience of that morning. (Airing on Hulu – all programs listed here are currently airing unless otherwise noted.) The special episode of “60 Minutes,” which begins September 12, revisits the stories of firefighters who survived the disaster and those who did not.

Apple TV+’s “9/11: Inside the President’s War Room” interviews George W. Bush and his former staff about the decisions and chaos that morning, and makes little reference to any subsequent resolutions—say, the invasion of Iraq. And the new seven-hour 9/11 show on the History Channel is based on amateur video, “September 11: Four Flights” and “September 11: I Was There,” about the plane crashing into the towers, the Pentagon, and the Pennsylvania field (both premiering on September 11). ).

These memoirs tend to be candid and respectful; they are often meticulously researched and combined. (I can’t speak for the TLC special “Long Island Medium: In Memory of 9/11,” which premiered on Thursday and promises to bring messages to families from the souls of lost loved ones.) They have the advantage of twenty years of truth. -to find. But over the years, it has been difficult for anything to match the urgency and urgency. “September 11” The film by Gédéon and Jules Naudet – the brothers who shot this famous tower-hit shot of the firefighter documentary – aired on CBS in 2002. (CNN will air again on Sunday.)

Focusing on the excitement and heroism of one day, of course, avoids falling into the trap of everything else. It depends on what we can all agree on. It’s safer because it’s safer to teach the Civil War or Jim Crow as horrors of the past rather than events in a continuum that has reached the present.

The other approach is to decide that 20 years, a full generation, is long enough to treat terrorist attacks as part of a larger historical period.

As you can see in the bloody news from Afghanistan, 9/11 is not just in the past. For viewers who want to explain how the attacks sparked two decades of military turmoil, Netflix has a five-part “Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror” that takes a hard look at the mission and intelligence failures before 9/11. Drive through multiple administrations. Illuminating, it includes the voices of Afghan leaders and civilians. September 11, as an era, meant upheaval for more than one nation.

But the history of 9/11 goes far beyond war and foreign policy. It has influenced domestic politics, internal animosities, and even American culture.

The latter is the subject of the clever and surprisingly cathartic “Coming Soon: Comedy After 9/11,” which premiered on Vice on Wednesday. Attacks have recently crossed the tragedy plus time barrier on sitcoms – both this year “Dave” and “Girls5Eva” Featured jokes about poorly timed album releases around 9/11 – but “Too Soon” explores comics’ early attempts to bring out the shock of the moment and the divisiveness of the war on terror. Among his voices is the famous Gilbert Gottfried. surprised his audience A 9/11 prank at Hugh Hefner’s roast in 2001 was recorded just weeks after the attacks. “Comedy and tragedy are roommates,” she says.

And two of the anniversary’s most striking documentaries present 9/11 as an event that struck America’s democracy and even its very soul.

The “Frontline” special “America After 9/11,” which premiered on PBS on Tuesday, is driven by a stunning video juxtaposition. First, on the Capitol steps on the day of the attacks, a chorus of Congressmen, Republicans and Democrats, senators and representatives join in to sing. “God Bless America.” Twenty years later, on the same site, a crowd surrounds Congress to disrupt the election results.

It’s a provocative connection, but filmmaker Michael Kirk puts it economically: The attacks accomplished the demagogues’ goal of dividing and weakening democracy and that of Osama bin Laden.

Private, from the very beginning, America’s reaction was driven by paradox: the moral rhetoric of President George W. Bush and the strategies of vice president Dick Cheney, who said America should work with the “dark side.” Survive.

The dark side won, “America After 9/11,” argues. He won when deceptive weapons of mass destruction claims rationalized the war in Iraq; When images of torture emerged from Abu Ghraib prison; While depictions of Barack Obama as bin Laden are circulating; when the media fuels hysteria about terrorist threats; And when a candidate won the 2016 election, who says “Islam hates us” and uses similar rhetoric to those he describes as internal enemies.

In this light January 6 attack Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former aide, says the Capitol, with its racist language and fantasy of saving America from a dark existential threat, was the “logical endpoint” of the 9/11 era.

But the most comprehensive of this year’s documentaries—and I think the most memorable—is Spike Lee’s elegiac, messy, and feisty “NYC Epicenters: 9/11-2021½,” aired in four episodes on HBO.

As the title suggests, “Epic Centers” is only partially about 9/11, strongly suggesting that the era of 9/11 can only be captured with the widest lens. It works backwards, starting with the Covid-19 pandemic, and works its way back to its starting point throughout Black Lives Matter, the 2016 and 2020 elections, and more. In Lee’s account, 9/11 is not just a matter of terrorism, but the opening act of decades of disaster and turmoil.

If it sounds like a yawn, “Epicenters” soon makes it hard to see the subject any other way, link after link over the years. In the days after the towers collapse, “America’s Mayor” Rudy Giuliani is spreading election fraud fan fiction at the Four Seasons Total Landscape. There is a rash of Islamophobic attacks after 9/11, reflecting the xenophobia of the Trump era. There are emergency medical workers who suffer from 9/11-related illnesses that emerged as pre-existing conditions during the pandemic.

According to Lee’s account, 9/11 itself was a pre-existing condition. It is a chronic condition, not a one-time injury, and other pre-existing conditions also express themselves in this way. New York is back from it, and the “Epicenters” insist, it will come back from Covid. However, in his crowning image, Lee likens the comeback to Marlon Brando’s bloody stumble at the end of “On the Waterfront.” Every blow leaves a mark.

“Epicenters” evokes the city using clips from movies from “On the Town” to the 1976 remake of “King Kong” to Lee’s own work. Lee’s memory of New York, like many people’s, is a mixture of lived experience and fantasy. And sometimes the exaggerated language of the movie is the only thing that can capture a larger-than-life experience; As the series notes, people repeatedly describe 9/11 as “like a movie.”

Lee’s interviews with hundreds of people, from highly elected officials to ground zero heavy equipment operators, are warm, emotional, and sometimes sparring. He ribs every Red Sox fan he talks to; He lets the moments happen when his subjects need time to collect themselves. For politicians, it lets raspberries fly freely (the captions refer to Donald J. Trump as “President Agent Orange,” in the words of rapper Busta Rhymes).

It’s debatable which director is essentially New York. But the New Yorker type of Lee’s passionate heckler might be the best fit for the subject. It’s the loving and critical impulses that New Yorkers know as synonymous. Her focus on diversity and race helps her find lesser-heard voices in a story that’s been told a lot. Vulcan Community For Black firefighters or the Black flight attendant who has a criminal memory of “racial profiling” a Saudi passenger after 9/11.

Unfortunately, the most news was made for “Epicenters”. what you can’t see inside: An expanded, bizarre chapter in the original finale that gives credence to the conspirators who theorized that the towers were destroyed in a controlled explosion. Lee trimmed the entire episode, and despite the blunt editing, the shorter finale, which will premiere on September 11, actually flows better.

I can imagine a version of the “epicenters” that still takes conspiracy theories not to justify but as an example of the paranoia that thrives in a socially insecure country – Lee’s anti-vaccine theories and electoral frauds that motivated some of the Capitol aggressors.

There is a sobering meta-lesson in the fact that this season’s most ingenious of 9/11 documentaries exemplifies one of the problems it has identified. But at least the resolution shows that criticism can make a difference and it’s not too late to take a serious look at history and make a change.


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