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James Hanlon, Gedeon Naudet, Jules Naudet

Rated PG.

Widescreen 1.78:1
English Dolby Stereo

Runtime: 129 min.
Price: $29.99
Release Date: 9/12/2002

• Bonus Interviews


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9/11: The Filmmakers' Commemorative DVD Edition (2002)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

When I saw 9/11: The Commemorative DVD Edition on the upcoming release rosters, I wanted to check out the documentary. I didn’t watch it when it aired on CBS, and I knew it received much praise. However, I felt a little reluctant to view it, simply because I worried that I wouldn’t agree with the plaudits. How does one criticize a project of this nature and not seem like a world-class cynic with absolutely no soul?

I needn’t deal with that issue, at least not today. While I thought 9/11 would offer a moving and compelling look at the events of that terrible day, it actually surpassed my expectations. Plain and simple, this program provided a stunning piece of work.

Created by French filmmakers Gedeon and Jules Naudet, 9/11 started life as a documentary about rookie New York firefighter Tony Benetatos. On probationary status, the early parts of the program show his first few months on the job. He gets a reputation as a “white cloud”, since no fires occur during his shifts.

However, all of that changes radically on September 11th. On a routine call to check out a leaky gas main, Jules accompanies the crew to get some camera practice. This put him and the others right near the World Trade Center as the first place hit. Jules recorded the only shots of the first crash, and he then accompanied Chief Pfeifer and the other firemen as they rushed to the tower. This allowed Jules to tape the work of the firefighters from the heart of the catastrophe.

In the meantime, Gedeon stayed back at the station, where Benetatos remained. The “probie” was forced to stick close to home for much of the morning, though eventually retired Chief Burns entered and led Benetatos to the disaster. Gedeon lost track of them and didn’t get to film their actions, so he wandered the streets of New York and shot the ordeal from that level.

Most of 9/11 followed this framework. At times it included footage from external sources, but most of the material came from the video cameras of the Naudet brothers. After the drama of September 11th itself, we watch the aftermath, which includes coverage of the rescue efforts. We also get more recent interviews with the firefighters we see in the main program; they add their recollections and impressions to the footage.

After a year and all of the umpteen rescreenings of all the WTC footage, I wondered if the material would continue to pack a punch. It definitely did. Actually, I don’t think I’d seen much of this footage since the days following the attack, but even if I had, I still feel 9/11 would have slammed me in the gut; it really re-ignited the impact of those events.

Much of the show’s effect stems from the manner in which the filmmakers convey the material. While other 9/11 shows pretty much start immediately with the attacks, this one goes back to the prior summer to set the stage. We get to know Tony and the other firefighters and see how they live.

That framework makes the material even more involving. For one, this allows us to become more attached to the personalities; they aren’t just anonymous. In addition, since we know where things will go, the tension level escalates as we await the inevitable. Much of 9/11 plays like an action movie as we watch the prologue to the attack and then follow all the rescue efforts.

On the surface, it might seem tacky to portray the attacks in such a popcorn flick framework. However, it doesn’t come across that way. Nothing about the program appears exploitative or overinflated. Yes, one could easily make an action movie based on the structure of 9/11, but it wasn’t anyone’s intention to create a glossy or loose program. The film works much better due to the structure since it draws us into the story and makes the tale even more dramatic.

The Naudet brothers also create a surprisingly objective piece. It’s very easy to pour on the sentiment and indulge in the tragedy of the circumstances, but they restrain themselves and never indulge in such stereotypical moments. This strongly works for the positive side, as it makes the program’s many emotional moments all the more effective since they occur naturally; nothing about them seems forced or cheesy.

Of course, the Naudet brothers could simply have plopped reels of uncut footage on the screen and it would have still been compelling. No one got material like this that lets us see what it was really like at “Ground Zero”, and nothing else makes the events seem so real. The Naudet brothers struck a perfect balance between their depiction of the reality of the situation and the nastier elements of the day. Although we see footage of both crashes and the collapses, we don’t witness horrors like the jumpers or the graphic injuries suffered by some. That’s fine, for none of that seems necessary. We get the point; we don’t need to watch someone burn to death to understand how terrible that day was. 9/11 provides just enough of that material to convey the appropriate tone.

Really, I don’t know what else to say about this astonishing film. 9/11 fully conveys the tragedy and horror of that fateful day, but it never does so in a tacky or exploitative manner. Instead, it focuses on the heroics that occurred and manages to create an effortlessly stirring and uplifting program despite all of the sadness. 9/11 stands as probably the most suitable depiction of what occurred on that day.

Note: 9/11 originally aired on CBS in March 2002. I didn’t see that broadcast, but I know it included narration from Robert De Niro. His material does not appear on this DVD. As I’ll note later, the DVD’s program alters the original in other ways, but since I didn’t watch the CBS version, I can’t really comment on those changes. The loss of De Niro seems like the most noticeable alteration, though.

The DVD Grades: Picture C / Audio C+ / Bonus A

9/11: The Filmmakers’ Commemorative DVD Edition appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.78:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. When I asked why the program didn’t feature anamorphic enhancement, I was told this occurred due to the wishes of the filmmakers. That still seemed odd to me, but I don’t know how much the 16X9 enhancement would have helped. The film was shot on modest quality video cameras, so the extra resolution probably wouldn’t have made the image significantly tighter.

Before I progress, I want to offer a caveat. I feel very strange critiquing the picture and sound quality of this program. The material contained on this DVD seems so special that to nitpick about these areas seems a little odd. I actually thought about totally skipping this section of the review, but I decided that wasn’t appropriate either. It’s my job to communicate how a DVD looks and sounds, and this one should be no different. Nonetheless, I’ve rarely thought that my critiques were less relevant than in this case, so take my comments with a grain of salt; objectively, the program doesn’t look or sound very good, but neither really matters here.

In any case, 9/11 offered about what I expected given its origins. Sharpness consistently appeared adequate but no better than that. The program demonstrated a modest fuzziness inherent to this form of source material, but it usually appeared reasonably accurate and distinct. Of course, since so much of the show was filmed under chaotic conditions, focus varied considerably, but I never found this to feel like a distraction; it came with the territory.

Some examples of jagged edges and shimmering appeared, but those actually seemed more modest than usual for a non-anamorphic program. I thought I noticed a little edge enhancement, but the roughness of the original material made it difficult to tell. As for flaws, I discerned no evidence of source defects or video artifacting; the program seemed clean in that regard.

Colors came across as somewhat muddy at times but they looked pretty decent for the most part. I don’t expect much from video programs in this regard, but 9/11 often presented stronger than average tones, especially considering the conditions under which it was filmed. Black levels seemed somewhat muddy but usually appeared acceptable, and shadow detail looked similar; due to the circumstances, many low-light situations were tough to discern.

Like I mentioned at the outset, 9/11 provided a less-than-clear image much of the time. However, I couldn’t expect anything more given the origins of the material. Granted, anamorphic enhancement might have tightened up the picture to a degree, but the fairly low-resolution source footage would still remain problematic. In the end, I thought the picture presented the program about as well as I could imagine.

I felt the same way toward the Dolby Digital 2.0 audio of 9/11. Actually, it offered surprisingly solid sound given its origins. Much of the track remained essentially monaural since it was recorded on the fly. Music displayed reasonable stereo spread, and I heard a little ambience from the sides. However, most of the track stayed stuck in the center, which made sense. I felt happy no one decided to muck with the source audio to make it spread more actively to the sides; the imaging should have been centered, so this track seemed to accurately replicate the original recordings.

Sound quality came across better than I expected considering the conditions. The narration and interview snippets seemed nicely warm and natural. Of course, speech shot on location seemed rougher, but I rarely encountered substantial difficulty in regard to intelligibility; the material was clearer than I thought it’d be. Effects became distorted during the loudest moments, but they usually seemed clean and accurate, and they also demonstrated fairly deep low-end. Music came from external sources, so it sounded best. The score appeared clear and reasonably bright and also showed some nice bass response. Overall, the audio of 9/11 worked about as well as one could expect for this material.

Note that unlike virtually all Paramount DVDs, 9/11 included no English subtitles. According to a representative, they dropped these because of the difficulties inherent in the depiction of all the non-dialogue sounds. Nonetheless, the package did provide closed-captioning.

9/11 includes a few supplements. Actually, the program itself contains footage not seen during its March 2002 broadcast. According to IMDB, that show ran 112 minutes, which means this one lasts an extra 17 minutes. Since other alterations occurred - primarily in regard to the omission of Robert De Niro’s host duties - I don’t know the exact amount of added footage, but I wanted to mention the extra length.

In addition, we find a collection of Bonus Interviews. These cover four topics: “It Was 8:46 In the Morning” (12 minutes, 31 seconds); “The Building Started to Shake” (14:11); “It’s Not Easy Being a Survivor” (16:19); and “I’ll Never Forget” (9:48). All told, we get 52 minutes and 49 seconds of extra footage. That’s virtually a second documentary - I’ve received other 9/11 related DVDs with less content than this one’s bonus material!

“Bonus” consists solely of interviews with NYFD personnell we see no shots of the 9/11 action or other material during this wonderfully simple presentation. We hear from Lt. Bill Walsh, Lt. Gary Lajiness, Capt. Dennis Tardio, Capt. Ron Schmutzler, Chief Joseph Pfeifer, Chief William Blaich, and firefighters Ed Fahey, Damian Van Cleaf, John O’Neill, Tom Spinard, Jamal Braithwaite, Joe Casaliggi, Nick Borrillo, Pat Zoda, John McConnachie, Steve Rogers, Steve Olsen and Chris Mullin. The four topics cover the reactions of the firefighters through the early moments, the collapse of the towers, the later efforts and aftermath, and their eventual thoughts.

We get some information here that already appears in the full documentary, but very little repeated material occurs. The comments uniformly seem excellent. The firefighters present their experiences clearly and expand upon the data learned elsewhere. The program doesn’t really offer anything unique, but it fleshes out the material nicely. Honestly, the interviews seem so compelling that they’re worth the price of admission alone; after 9/11 itself, the bonus segments may well be the second strongest documentary on the subject.

Perhaps a better documentary about that day will eventually arrive, but I doubt we’ll ever find anything more powerful than 9/11. The program provides a tasteful, compelling, moving and provocative look at the events of that terrible day. It remains respectful at all times and it creates an immediacy that probably cannot be topped. The DVD features picture and sound that accurately replicate the source material along with an outstanding compilation of interviews that add a lot of value to the package. No one will ever regard 9/11 as an easy documentary to watch, but it offers a tremendously compelling piece of work that comes with my absolute highest recommendation.

Footnote: you know what I think would make an appropriate 9/11 related package? 9/11, America: A Tribute to Heroes, and The Concert For New York City. The last two are heavily music-oriented, of course, but they fully encapsulate the pain of the immediate aftermath (Tribute) and the strength and resolve that emerged in the subsequent weeks (Concert). 9/11 provides the "you are there" emphasis, and the whole set really would offer the perfect complement for anyone who wants a full record of America in the fall of 2001.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.4803 Stars Number of Votes: 102
4 3:
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