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The Best 9/11 Documentary: Making Sense of Tragedy

Ten years after the tragedy known collectively as “9/11,” people are still unraveling the theories and conspiracies of how a beautiful fall morning was transformed into a modern “day of infamy.”

It was a watershed moment in American history. And although there’s a tendency to lay the blame exclusively with Osama bin Laden (who was indeed the leader of terrorist alliance Al Qaeda), there were many different actors involved in the tragedy. There’s no single documentary that could hold the title of “Best 9/11 Documentary.” On the contrary, there are a number of documentaries and films that help sort out the various criminals and explain the series of events that led up to September 11, 2001:

Inside 9/11 (2006)

The story of 9/11 is long and complicated. So much so that the U.S. governments official explanation, The 9/11 Commission Report (2004), required a 567-page document. This National Geographic presentation provides a complete overview of the themes and events involved. See how the seeds of the 9/11 attacks were sown over the last few decades and how the plan (which contained many moving parts) finally came together. National Geographic’s 280-minute presentation is very comprehensive; it not only touches on all the issues but also raises many questions about subsequent U.S. foreign policy (including our ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).

Lower Manhattan was rocked by the attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Inside 9/11 shows in detail why the events that transpired on Sept. 11, 2001, were actually set into motion decades earlier. 

A two-disc set, the first DVD sets the stage for 9/11 by going into necessary detail about the various global events that led to al Qaeda’s decision to attack the U.S. mainland. The second disc focuses on the day of September 11, 2001, providing a minute-by-minute cataloging of everything that happened on 9/11 itself. Taken together, this is as complete a video record of what happened as is likely to ever be produced.

Lasting Impression: The 9/11 attacks were both brutally cruel and brilliantly organized. Al Qaeda and the 9/11 terrorists who perpetrated the attacks were the very models of efficiency. They correctly identified vulnerabilities in America’s transportation system and then exploited them to inflict the maximum amount of damage possible.

9/11 (2002)

Two French brothers were staying with the New York firefighters of Engine 7, Ladder 1 and in the process of making a documentary about what a new firefighter experiences during his first year on the job. Suddenly, as one brother was filming a team of firefighters examining a potential gas leak, the hijacked plane from American Airlines Flight 11 flew directly overhead and crashed into the North Tower. From that point on, the brothers (Jules and Gedeon Naudet) found themselves shooting the most significant moment in recent American history. 9/11 gives you a ground-eye view of the mayhem taking place in Lower Manhattan, including the horrible moments when firefighters in the lobby become trapped by falling debris as the South Towers implodes and collapses.

Jules and Gedeon Naudet (holding cameras) were actually in New York to make a documentary film about a rookie firefighter. They got much more than that, including one of the only filmed sequences of the first hijacked plane crashing into the WTC.

The documentary (simply titled “9/11”) earned the Naudet Brothers an Emmy and a Peabody Award for broadcasting excellence. Approximately six months after 9/11, CBS aired the documentary in its entirety (including the uncensored profanity of the firefighters, struggling to deal with a situation that was unlike any ever previously faced). CBS has aired the documentary three times, each time prefacing the film with a brief introduction by actor and native New Yorker, Robert DeNiro.

Lasting Impression: Tough, seasoned NYFD firefighters looking about the WTC lobby nervously as they continue to hear loud explosions all around them—the terrible sounds of people jumping or falling from the Tower’s upper reaches, and crashing through glass ceilings far below.

United 93 (2006)

Named after the 9/11 flight that began with hijacking but ended with heroism, United 93 tells the story of the passengers on the fourth plane. It was being flown to Washington, D.C., but was brought down by the Americans on-board, who understood (from cell phone and air phone calls to the outside world) that their plane was going to be used for a kamikaze mission. Instead of resigning themselves to their sorry fate, the passengers acted with passion and energy and fought to overtake their captors. And while it’s true that the passengers of United 93 were all killed instantly when a cockpit struggle to retake control of the plane resulted in the massive 757 barreling nose-first into an empty field in Shanksville, Penn., the rebellion of passengers on United 93 foiled al Qaeda’s attempt at destroying the U.S. Capitol. It was the only point of pride in a long and terrible morning that witnessed the killing of thousands of Americans.

The cast of United 93 was made up of mostly unknown actors…for a reason.

Paul Greengrass’ United 93 is a powerful and disturbing film, shot like a hybrid of feature film and documentary, where some of the original players involved portray themselves and recreate their actions, while mostly unknown actors play the passengers. (The reason for choosing unknown actors: So the audience wouldn’t be identifying a passenger by previous roles they’ve played, and that the people on the plane would simply look like normal Americans.) The strength of the film is that it sticks to its story and simply lays out the events as they happened.

It is like a documentary in that the film doesn’t provide back-story details about anyone on the plane, such as a standard Hollywood drama might. The film also does an admirable job of showing how many different players were involved in America’s response to the terror that unfolded that beautiful fall morning. Pluckiest of all: FAA National Operations Manager Ben Sliney (here portraying himself), evaluating the information he has and making the fateful call to lock-down America’s entire air space and ground more than 4,000 domestic air flights. It was a decision which cost the airline industry many millions of dollars in lost revenue, and marked the only time in U.S. history when the nation’s entire air space was completely shut down. It was Sliney’s very first day on the job.

Lasting Impression: Even though we know how this story ends, United 93 is gripping and suspenseful. And while the passengers of the first two hijacked planes had reason to hope they were part of a traditional hijacking crime, the informed passengers of United 93 knew better. That these American heroes were able to fight through their fear and band together to resist the terrorist plot is nothing short of inspirational. The film is often uncomfortably tense to watch, but the material is handled expertly and with great sensitivity. It’s difficult to imagine this part of the 9/11 story being told any better. The DVD also contains a behind-the-scenes documentary that shows the surviving relatives of United 93’s passengers meeting the actors and actresses who were portraying their loved ones.

Man on Wire (2008)

It’s been 10 full years since 9/11. Life in America hasn’t been quite the same since 9/11, but it has gone on. Even after enormous tragedies, life must go on. That spirit infuses a recent documentary that immortalizes the Twin Towers without a single mention of what occurred in 2001. Man on Wire takes us back to a slightly happier moment (in August of 1974) when the Towers were still new and recently crowned the tallest buildings on earth.

The majestic and dazzling Twin Towers—which loomed more than a quarter-mile over New York City—drew tourists from all over the world, including one adventurous Frenchman named Philippe Petit. Petit, a trained wire-walker (and juggler and magician) who had pulled off grand stunts at Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral and the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia, became fascinated with the idea of stretching a tight wire between the Twin Towers and walking at cloud-level across the 200-foot chasm that existed between the buildings.

Petit realized that he would never receive permission to attempt such a fool-hardy stunt, so he assembled a team of like-minded helpers. Together, through a plot that plays like a caper film, Petit and his accomplices smuggled a half-ton of wire equipment to the building’s top floor, then (during the middle of the night, when the WTC was deserted) assembled the different parts to create the wire.

That first step is a doozy: The tight-wire walker’s long look downward through the clouds, as he began his famous journey across.

The next morning, Petit carefully but confidently stepped on that wire (which was only ¾-inch thick) and started walking. After a few scary moments (“Death was very near,” he recalls), Petit mastered the wire and suddenly was filled with an inner peace. Not only did he make the full pass between the Towers, he repeated the trip seven more times. He walked on the wire, and at times he kind of danced on it, too. He also dropped to one knee at one point; saluted the crowd of onlookers far, far below; laid down on his back on the wire; and even sat down on the wire and stared straight down at the amazed watchers 1,300 feet beneath him.

He only agreed to come in from the wire after 45 minutes because NYPD helicopter cops were threatening to pluck him off the wire (a rescue move that would probably have blown Petit off the wire and to his certain death). Why did he do it? Petit laughs about the question he was asked repeatedly by cops and reporters. “Such an American question,” he chuckles. Nor does he explain why, immediately after being arrested for his high-wire act, he decided to (successfully) pick-pocket the watch of the arresting officer. Call it an encore.

Lasting Impression: A movie that radiates a certain joy, Man on Wire is about one man’s attempt to use his skill to conquer the Towers, not destroy them with explosives. With its simple but beautiful piano score, set against the images of the Twin Towers in all their sky-scraping glory, Man on Wire has a healing effect.

Telling Your Story: Learning Documentary Filmmaking 
The documentary film medium is enormously powerful. When it comes to telling an emotionally wrenching story, such as 9/11, only a narrative film rivals the ability. Some would agree that reality is never beaten by fiction. Now, thanks to digital cameras and desktop video-editing solutions like Final Cut Pro X, the world of film is now open to any aspiring filmmaker with vision and imagination. If you’re considering becoming a filmmaker or even changing your career, get film instruction from industry professionals and you’ll be introduced to the mechanics involved in making movies and get up to speed on state-of-the-art editing software. Whether you’re interested in reflecting modern history or shaping film history, there’s never been a better time to unlock the filmmaker within you.


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