Earlier this week, my wife and I went to see the latest film based upon the events of September 11th, 2001. In the hopes of putting Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close within its proper context, I have decided to offer this brief series on the history of 9/11 and film. Yesterday, we examined the major studio releases that have sought to relive the events of that day. Today, we will continue the series by taking a closer look at the notable documentaries.
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By far the “gold standard” of all the documentaries on this subject, this is the film that almost wasn’t. On the morning of September 11th, French documentarians Gedeon and Jules Naudet were out on the streets of New York, making a film about a young probationary firefighter. But as fate would have it, the brothers were standing in the flight path of the first plane as it flew straight overhead and into the side Tower 1. Thus, these two brothers became eyewitnesses to history as they captured the only known footage of the first strike as well as the only internal footage of the chaos that erupted in the Trade Centers as the firefighters fought their way into the building in a heroic attempt to rescue the survivors.
Ten years after the fact, this film still stands out as a giant among the many imitators. By the sheer virtue of its immediate and unparalleled access to the events of the day, it possesses a power that can still reduce the viewer to a state of shock. From the off camera sounds of the bodies striking the pavement to the steely look of grim determination in the rescuers eyes, the viewer is given a front row seat to hell-on-earth, a seat that might gladly be surrendered if it weren’t so important to remember.
102 Minutes that Changed America (2008).
If 9/11 is the “gold standard” of the documentaries that have sought to understand these events, the History Channel’s 102 Minutes that Changed America comes in a very close second. Wisely eschewing the footage that played ad nausea in the aftermath of the attacks, this documentary is instead assembled by cobbling together footage from the countless amateur videographers that were filming throughout New York.
What gives this documentary its power is the lack of a singular narrative voice. There is no filter for this footage. There is no news anchor gravely interpreting the chaos. There is no buffer from the anguish and pain. Instead, there is only shaky, raw footage painstakingly stitched together in such a way as to tell “our story,” as we all came to grips with the way our lives were going to change through these events.
Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004).
Thus far, we have looked at two documentaries that sought to provide cathartic release by offering the viewer an intimate opportunity to relive the events of that day. Unlike these other two films, however, Fahrenheit 9/11 has no such purpose. Instead, Fahrenheit 9/11 attempts to take a broader, more politicized, view of the events as it offers up an interpretation of the day that links the attacks, the Bush Presidency, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the Bin Laden family and the Western dependence upon oil.
Regardless of whether you agree with the politics of the film or not, Fahrenheit 9/11 is significant in that it won the Palme d’Or at the 57th Cannes Film Festival in France; and on the strength of that win, went on to be released in the United States just weeks before the 2004 Presidential election.
9/11: The Falling Man (2006).
The least well known of the documentaries we have discussed, 9/11: The Falling Man is nevertheless an excellent look at one of the nearly 200 “jumpers” who elected to plummet to their demise rather than facing what they presumed would be a slow death via fire and smoke inhalation.
On the day after the attacks, newspapers around the world ran a photograph, which came to be known as: “The Falling Man.” It had been taken by the Associated Press photographer Richard Drew; and unlike any other image from that day, it alone was branded as distasteful and voyeuristic by a mainstream media that never printed it again. But some, such as the documentarians responsible for this film, believed that this picture needed to be confronted, for it alone communicated the true horror experienced by those trapped in a burning building.
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Tomorrow, this series will conclude by taking a look at the Oscar-nominated film, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
 It should be noted that no documentaries related to the “alternative accounts” of 9/11 are included in this list. Such accounts, while widespread on the internet, are too radically different from the accounts accepted as factual by mainstream America, and thus they are a separate entity unto themselves.
 9/11: The Falling Man can be viewed online at the following address: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXnA9FjvLSU&feature=player_embedded