Timed to coincide with the first anniversary of September 11th, the release of "9/11: The Filmmakers' Commemorative Edition" DVD and videotape at first appears to be little more than crass commercialism and media exploitation of last year's terrorist attacks on the United States. Indeed, some criticism greeted the original airing of the film on the CBS network earlier this year, as it was likened to 'Geraldo Rivera'-style sensationalism. However, if one is able to look beyond the media hype and cynicism, "9/11" ends up being a powerful piece of documentary filmmaking that puts a human face on the tragic events of what started as an ordinary September morning.
"9/11" originally started off as an unassuming documentary about how a fresh-faced cadet becomes a full-fledged firefighter. Filmmaking brothers Jules and Gédéon Naudet, along with their firefighter friend James Hanlon, began filming at New York's firefighting academy during the summer of 2001 and eventually settled on rookie Tony Benetakos as the focus of the documentary. The footage shot during this time serves as the film's opening, and establishes the daily routine for both Tony and his firefighter colleagues-- the camaraderie, the pranks, the small rescue operations, and their frequent trips to the World Trade Center in response to false alarms.
Of course, everything changes on the morning of September 11th. While responding to a small gas leak on a downtown street, the roar of a plane is heard overhead. Jules turns the camera upwards to the sky and catches sight of the first plane slamming into Tower 1 of the World Trade Center. Without any time to waste, Jules joins Battalion Chief Pfeiffer to respond to what is believed to be a terrible aviation accident, and documents the goings-on at the command post that is set up in the lobby of Tower 1. Meanwhile, Gédéon is with Tony, who has been left in charge of answering the phones at the empty firehouse, with little else to do other than watch the unfolding news coverage in astonishment and shock. What then unfolds is a minute-by-minute account of the events that have become all-too-familiar over the past year-- the second plane crashing into Tower 2, signaling that this was no accident; the collapse of both towers; and the subsequent rescue operations at what would be called 'Ground Zero'.
Though images of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center have been replayed hundreds of times, the impact of the footage captured by the Naudet brothers is still compelling, as it uncompromisingly presents the humanity of the tragedy. The most remarkable aspect is the experience of the rookie firefighter, whose transformation is not unlike that of the American public. In his audition interview, Tony's desire to be a 'hero' and irreverent attitude reveal his naivete, and during his first few weeks on the job, he keeps hoping to be involved in a 'real fire'. As the disaster unfolds on the firehouse's television, Tony's face betrays his growing anger and sense of helplessness. Finally, he heads out towards the World Trade Center, unwilling to stand idly by any longer, with Gédéon right behind him. And while out on the street, the camera captures the diversity of the pedestrians watching events unfold, who represent many cultures and speak different languages, inadvertently creating a powerful metaphor for the global impact of the terrorist attacks.
Meanwhile, the chaos in Tower 1 grows minute by minute. With the elevators knocked out, the firefighters must trek up the building using the stairs, and given that it takes them about a minute per floor with all their heavy gear, it will be at least an hour before they even reach the first burning floor. Furthermore, the tower's internal communications system has been knocked out by the crash, leaving the firefighters to rely on radios plagued by poor reception. The confusion only grows as the second tower is hit, requiring the firefighters to conduct rescue operations on two fronts, and rumors of a third plane on its way in only add to the bedlam. Nevertheless, dozens of determined firefighters suit up and head out, ready to do what they have been trained for. Unfortunately, many will not return, and the camera catches a brief glimpse of them, including the brother of Pfeiffer, who nods to the Battalion chief one last time before heading upstairs.
Meanwhile, loud, thunderous crashes are heard every few minutes-- the sound of people hitting the pavement after having jumped out of an 80-storey window. As one firefighter remarks, "If jumping is the better option, how bad is it up there?" Matters only get worse as Tower 1 collapses, an event that is made even more horrifying from the perspective of Jules' camera inside the building's lobby. Gédéon, who sees the collapse a few blocks away, fears that his brother Jules may be dead.
Thankfully, "9/11" doesn't try to sensationalize or politicize its subject matter. In contrast, it ends up being an objective and solemn visual record of the events that day, and it reveres the bravery and sacrifices of the firefighters who first responded. For example, even when the order is given to evacuate Tower 2 following the collapse of the first tower, there is disagreement between firefighters on whether or not to obey the order or to continue rescue operations. The film is also peppered with narration by Hanlon and interviews with some of the firefighters who survived, which further add to the emotional weight of the proceedings.
Compared to the original television broadcast, some significant changes have occurred with the home video release, many of which are for the better. The gimmicky introductions by Robert DeNiro and Steve Buscemi have been wisely excised, while some sequences have been extended to provide additional perspective, such as a pep talk during Tony's academy training that drives home the point that firefighting is a discipline, and not a venue for glory hounds. In addition (and appropriately enough), a portion of the proceeds from the sales of the film will go towards the Uniformed Firefighters Association Scholarship Fund.
By focusing on the untiring efforts of New York's finest and one particular firefighter's journey to manhood, "9/11" is a testament to the unrelenting horror and selfless heroics that marked America's darkest day. This extraordinary film's you-are-there verisimilitude and indelible images will quickly wash away any traces of '9/11overload', making it abundantly clear that the tragic events of September 11th, 2001 should never be trivialized or forgotten.