Someday, many years from now, at a time when we're able to look back at Sept. 11 in the context of a full historical perspective rather than as an ongoing current event with an unknown destination, Hollywood will almost certainly make its first major motion picture that depicts the physical events of that awful day six months ago.
Any such movie would be an exercise in redundancy at best.
Last Sunday, CBS aired the much-talked-about 9/11, a documentary that gets viewers about as close to the World Trade Center disaster as any such testament or footage ever can or will — and about as close as most would probably want to get.
Documentary filmmakers Jules and Gedeon Naudet started the project as the story of a rookie New York firefighter. Their firefighter friend, James Hanlon, who also narrates the documentary, helped the Naudets shoot tape and arrange the logistics of the mission. The plan was to show how rookies — or "probies," as they are called — are changed from boys into men, as the cliche goes. But as is the case with many great documentaries, happenstance (which in this case is a terrible understatement) dictates the project's direction. Sept. 11 happened, and these filmmakers were there to record it in a way no one else did.
The film begins in June 2001. The probie is Tony Benetatos. He's stationed at New York's Engine 7, Ladder 1 firehouse, seven blocks from the World Trade Center. We watch Benetatos being brought into the stationhouse family, a close group of guys who live ordinary lives before being thrust into the dangerous situations that define their jobs.
This summer, however, was an unusually uneventful one. Benetatos's presence resembled that of a good-luck charm. "By the end of August, we knew that we had a great cooking show," Gedeon Naudet recalls. Everything worth documenting around the firehouse had already happened — except for a real fire. Not that we need the events of Sept. 11 telegraphed for us, but it's a strange irony to hear the firefighter superstition voiced here: When you go for a long time without a real fire, something big is on the horizon.
Strange as it is to say, 9/11's story is structured a lot like conventional fictional disaster movies, making one sense that maybe there's a reason why the fiction films rarely deviate from that formula. The early scenes provide the backdrop, introducing us to the subjects of the story, i.e., the firefighters, the two brother cameramen, and their daily routine. These scenes are interesting as slice-of-life snippets from the uneventful experiences of the firefighters, but they also manage to generate a tremendous amount of suspense and unease, because we know what's in their very near future, while they do not.
It's eerie, in a way, when you consider a shot early in the film where two firefighters discuss the trivialities in Benetatos' training while the twin towers stand proudly and prominently in the background. It plays like ominous foreboding, except for the fact the Naudets weren't foreboding anything when they shot the footage. The twin towers simply made for more interesting photography.
Then comes 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11. The shot of the airliner hitting the first tower we've seen on the news networks (though it remains the only known footage of the first impact). But there's something more intense and disturbing about seeing it through the eyes of a cameraman and firefighters that we've begun to identify with. We're right there in the streets with them when it happens, and it's horrifying. One minute they're taking routine measurements for a gas leak, then a jet flies over their heads, and the next minute all hell is breaking loose.
Indeed, watching the chaos unfold on the screen is sort of like reliving the events of Sept. 11 all over again. I can see why some, particularly the victims' families and the survivors who were there that day, would be loath to watch it. Not since Sept. 11 actually happened have I been more viscerally impacted by images from that day. For viewers who don't live in New York or didn't personally lose anyone on that day, 9/11's images have a rare ability to directly transport us back to that moment in time. We can see before our eyes the 10 seconds separating the time before Sept. 11 happened and the time afterward.
The reason for the effectiveness of 9/11's crisis footage is simple. This is confused, chaotic, you-are-there reality captured on tape. We see the World Trade Center in flames — as we all did on the news that day — but the film takes us into the streets alongside the actual witnesses and then into one of the buildings with the firefighters trying to deal with this unthinkable crisis.
The reason why it will ultimately, someday, be redundant to make a movie about the disaster from this viewpoint is simply because 9/11 captures everything you need to see and hear to understand how people felt on that day, how the scale of the disaster (before the collapse) was beyond anything the firefighters were able to realistically deal with, and how being closer to the disaster actually resulted in the firefighters on the scene having less initial information.
Simply put, this is compelling footage. That it even exists goes against all odds. Even if it had been incompetently edited (which, to be sure, it wasn't) it would stand as a living document to what happened on the streets around the towers and inside One World Trade Center.
Through Jules' camera, we see a massive operation of firefighters setting up in the lobby of Tower 1. When Tower 2 was struck and then later collapsed, the firefighters in Tower 1 ran for their lives without even knowing what was actually happening. Some firefighters later exited Tower 1 underground and emerged on the streets through nearby buildings, and then — in what is a testament to how confusing all this madness was — they set up a new outdoor command post in the shadow of Tower 1, not even knowing that Tower 2, obscured from their view by the tower in front of it, had collapsed to the ground.
By virtue of skillful editing, a chaotic, disjointed series of events comes together to paint a whole picture that makes sense — at least, as much "sense" as can be said for anything that happened on Sept. 11. It seems strange to essentially praise two cameramen for capturing a tragedy on tape — but the way this documentary captures the scope of that hour in such a chilling and comprehensive way ensures that it will be a major Sept. 11 historical document in the decades to come, at least in terms of an eyewitness to the New York attack itself.
Before the airing, there was much discussion over the question of potentially graphic footage. In the finished product, there is no graphic footage in terms of individual human death, which is the right decision. Even though historical truth is a legitimate rationalization for non-censorship, the filmmakers owed it to the victims and survivors not to put scenes of individual death on the record. According to the Naudets, such a notion never even crossed their minds; indeed when first entering Tower 1, Jules explains, there were two people on fire immediately to his right, but he consciously decided it was in no one's interests for him to turn the camera toward them.
Still, the film doesn't shy away from the reality of the situation, including the landing-impact sound of people who were jumping from the skyscraper. ("I just remember looking up, thinking, how bad is it up there that the better option is to jump?" says firefighter Joe Casaliggi.) There's also honest footage where a firefighter explains how he saw body parts littering the roof of the nearby Marriott.
What may be most amazing — a story twist a writer couldn't plausibly write — is how not a single firefighter from Engine 1, Ladder 7 was killed in the collapse. It was odd beyond odd — a zero-fatality firehouse. "It's not easy being a survivor," a firefighter muses. "I can't explain why I'm here and there are so many that are dead."
The third stage of the film — which is equally engrossing — follows the firefighters in the days and weeks after the attack in their largely futile and demoralizing efforts to find survivors in the wreckage. Eventually, as Benetatos recounts, it would've been nice even to get just one corpse out, so someone could have a real funeral, but even that was hard to come by. Benetatos explains a failed body recovery attempt that feels like a smaller tragedy inside the scope of the several larger ones.
The interviews have some haunting observations, like one particularly memorable recount from firefighter Casaliggi: "You have two 110 story office buildings — you don't find a desk, you don't find a chair, you don't find a telephone, a computer. The biggest piece of a telephone I found was half of the keypad, and it was about this big," he says while holding his thumb and forefinger about three inches apart. "The building collapsed to dust. How are we supposed to find anybody in this? There's nothing left of the building."
Ultimately, the true human subject of the story — the firefighters — couldn't be more appropriate. A full 10 percent of the dead from the trade center disaster were firefighters, people who rushed into the building to save lives and ended up giving theirs. The story is emotionally anchored in the fact it goes full circle and shows the loss and aftereffects on these firefighters. There's an understated sadness to the notion near the end, where new recruits sign on and Hanlon's narration muses over how they'll never know what it was like to be a firefighter before Sept. 11.
"I remember ... how much my brother and I used to love being downtown and doing this job," says Chief Joseph Pfeifer, whose brother Kevin — also a firefighter — was among those who perished. "And now I [don't] love it anymore."