Review: ‘Frontline: Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero’

With every news outlet from network mags to cable talkshows covering the aftermath of Sept. 11, it's difficult to find a new angle, but PBS' "Frontline" takes a religious approach to America's grieving process with "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero."

With every news outlet from network mags to cable talkshows covering the aftermath of Sept. 11, it’s difficult to find a new angle, but PBS’ “Frontline” takes a religious approach to America’s grieving process with “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero.” The docu consists simply of talking heads, as a cross-section of people from various religions are interviewed about how their faith was affected by the events during and after those terrorist attacks. The two hours, mixing dogma with recovery and sorrow, are somber and effective, more thought-provoking than poignant, and while comments from professors and pundits are smart, they seem like platitudes; the most moving points come from those who’ve been directly touched by the events.

Educators, clergymen and writers try to construct rationales and grand-scheme-of-things ideologies, some of which may frustrate viewers. As with the rest of the Sept. 11-anniversary projects airing in the next few days, it’s the true victims — fathers who lost sons, wives who lost husbands — whose words most resonate here.

“Faith” is at its best when skepticism comes from such individuals. Like Marian Fontana, who no longer feels devout since her firefighter husband died. “I can’t bring myself to speak to God any more because I feel abandoned,” she says. “I guess deep down inside I know He still exists, and that I have to forgive, but I’m not ready to do that.”

Or like Father Joseph Griesedieck, who didn’t lose a loved one but was challenged to preach thereafter. “After Sept. 11, the face of God was a blank slate for me. He could not be counted on.”

International dialogue is part of this study, and “Faith” co-writer and producer Helen Whitney pulls many tears from a wide pool.

For auds, the most enlightening interview may come from Buddhist couple Sheriff Chowdhury and Showkatara Sharif, who long for their daughter and son-in-law. While the docu suggests at its beginning that misery is handled in dissimilar ways, it really becomes evident that last year not only brought Americans together, but the whole world as well. “We cannot protest or ask why Allah took our daughter,” one says. “No matter what I do, if I cry or if I scream, I can’t bring her back, so I have to accept it.”

The portraits are scattered, from those who continue to believe in a Complete Power to those who now trust nobody; but the general opinion is that something of a higher cause is always at work, even if the toll is great. “Faith” concludes that boundaries of anguish have disappeared and sufferers around the globe are now part of one family forever — despite their differences.

With any pious discussion there’s bound to be some buttons pushed, and if there’s anything here that could be deemed prickly, it’s that some of the explanations come from professors and authors, professionals whose goal is to pacify instead of sympathize. Tell Bernie Heeran, who misses his 24-year-old son, that there’s a spirit who cares. Tell Tim Lynston, who worked as a security guard and mourned for 30 friends, that God matters. “It’s too barbaric the way the lives were taken,” he says. “I have a different view of Him now.”

A talking-head technique is all that’s needed in a project like this; It’s hard to imagine anything besides language layered over the billows of smoke coming from downtown Gotham. And for critics who claim that enough is enough when it comes to Sept. 11 TV exposure, “Faith” is a testament to its necessity. It may be asking a lot, but the people who perished deserve all of it.

Frontline: Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero

PBS, Tues., Sept. 3, 9 p.m.

Production

Filmed in New York City by Frontline and Helen Whitney Prods. Executive producers, David Fanning, Michael Sullivan; producer, Helen Whitney; writers, Whitney, Ron Rosenbaum; editor, Ted Winterbaum. 120 MIN.

Cast

Narrator: Kathryn Walker.
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