Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 26, 2011)
With the 10th anniversary of the 9/11/01 attacks on us, many attempts to re-examine the events will come upon us. The History Channel creates a DVD package with a mix of these all in one place.
September 11th Memorial Edition delivers four separate documentaries. Here’s what we find:
102 Minutes That Changed America (2008 - 1:38:23): This program offers total first-person perspective. It comes from a variety of video sources; we get some professional footage but mostly we see consumer shots from ordinary people. The show includes no narration and relies largely on the audio recorded by the cameras.
The absence of interviews and reflective comments makes Minutes unusual and especially effective. It starts at 8:48 AM and goes until past 10:30 AM, so it launches immediately after the first plane crash and finishes a little after the collapse of the second tower. In between, we see a lot of shots of the towers themselves as well as reactions to the events and actions taken by those on the scene.
For the most part, Minutes avoids images of the major damage. We don’t see either plane hit the buildings; as noted, the show starts after the first hit, and we view the second crash from an angle that simply shows a ball of fire from the side. The first tower collapse also occurs off-camera, but we see a clear, full view of the second collapse.
This surprised me; at that point, I’d assumed that the program wouldn’t offer any of that footage. However, I think the choice gives the collapse more impact. Because we don’t expect it, the shot takes us by surprise and creates a more intense effect.
Not that Minutes needs it, as the preceding 90 minutes or so provide a walk down a horrible memory lane for those of us who remember 9/11 well. I must admit that I sometimes wonder why we watch these shows. 10 years later, the wounds remain open, and I don’t know what those of us who lived through 9/11 get from them; maybe programs such as this offer greater benefit for folks to young to have been direct witnesses to the time and events.
Minutes acts as an excellent way to give those people a look at what happened and might be the place to start. No, it doesn’t have the historical perspective that other documentaries could offer, but few of its counterparts depict the morning’s events in such a stark first-person manner. We know virtually nothing that the man on the street doesn’t hear, and that includes various rumors such as the guy who claims the terrorists will send another plane into the towers every 30 minutes.
The program really does put us into the action, and it’s a harrowing journey. I’d almost forgotten how awful some of the 9/11 sights really were, and the quick view of the jumpers nearly brought me to tears. This is a visceral journey that will often be unpleasant to take.
But it’s a very valuable way to see what happened. Other shows provide better historical perspective and a fuller take on the day. As noted, we get most of our info from the “man on the street”. We hear brief mention of the attack on the Pentagon and there’s an understanding that a terrorist group enacted the assaults, but nothing beyond that. Even references to President Bush come from the background; we hear a little of his initial speech and that’s it.
If someone wants to get the full picture of what occurred on 9/11, they won’t get it from 102 Minutes. However, they will find an excellent entry point, one that delivers an emotional and terrifying view of what it was like to be in Manhattan on that day. It’s a simply terrific documentary that shook me to the core.
Hotel Ground Zero (2009 - 44:33): This documentary looks at the Marriott that stood at the base of the World Trade Center and provides the stories of some of those who stayed or worked there 9/11. We hear from guests Dennis Wooldridge, Leigh Gilmore and mother Faye, Ronald Clifford and Frank Razzano, Marriott receptionist Amy Ting, and firefighter Jeff Johnson.
After the gut punch of 102 Minutes, it seems inevitable that Hotel will provide a less harrowing experience. That shouldn’t be viewed as criticism, though; it’d be hard for most 9/11 documentaries to match up to what we saw in the other show.
Hotel offers a more conventional documentary, as it combines the usual mix of archival footage and “talking head” interviews. This format works fine for the subject, especially since we’re unlikely to find a lot of footage to depict the experiences of those at the Marriott. Unlike the larger events of 9/11, this one requires details and specifics.
Which it does well. I didn’t even know there was a hotel right next to the WTC, much less one with so many dramatic tales to tell. Hotel covers the events they experienced in a clear, compelling manner that makes this an engrossing documentary.
The Miracle of Stairway B (2006 - 45:12): 14 people caught in the North Tower when it fell managed to survive. Miracle tells their experiences and how they made it out alive. We find notes from firefighters Mickey Kross, Jim McGlynn, Jay Jonas, Chief Peter Hayden, Bill Butler, James Efthimiades, Sal D’Agostino, Matt Komorowski, Mike Meldrum, Glenn Rohan, office worker Josephine Harris, Kross’s girlfriend Christine Monda, McGlynn’s girlfriend Kathleen Walter, and Jonas’s wife Judy.
Like Hotel, Miracle gives us another compelling story of survival. It’s another story that probably won’t be known to most, so it’s fascinating to learn of the improbable way that the firefighters and Harris made it out of the collapsed tower. Given how much we know about the broader events of 9/11, I really like these documentaries that concentrate on smaller human stories.
The Day the Towers Fell (2002 - 43:21): we see still photographs (mostly) from 9/11 and the aftermath accompanied by comments from the people who shot them. It involves statements from freelance photographer Peter Foley, FEMA photographers Andrea Booher and Michael Rieger, amateur photographer Jane Barrer, NY Daily News photographer David Handschuh, consultant/AP freelancer John Labriola, eyewitnesses/photographers Jeff Erber and Mamie Ogawa, filmmaker Star Reese, AP freelancer Ernesto Mora, AP staff Gulnara Samilova, fireman/photographer George Farrinaci, boat captains Greg Freitas and Huntley Gill, The Record photographer Thomas Franklin, Marine Safety Service Captain Scott Shields, and New York Times photographer Angel Franco.
Fell ends the set on a fine note. While it lacks the specificity of the last two shows, it still delivers an excellent first-person take on events. We see a strong collection of photos that work just as powerfully as the video footage. I must admit I wish I could unsee the shots of the jumpers; of all the day’s horrors, the sight of people leaping to their death remains the most troubling to me. That personal issue aside, Fell delivers another powerful examination of the day’s events.