The sheer weight of programming tied to Sept. 11's fifth anniversary risks becoming oppressive, as well as more than a little cynical. Yet this tough-minded documentary does provide a focused recap of the day's events, as well as historical context, while doling out blame among various constituencies, including the Bush and Clinton administrations.
The sheer weight of programming tied to Sept. 11’s fifth anniversary risks becoming oppressive, as well as more than a little cynical. Yet this tough-minded documentary does provide a focused recap of the day’s events, as well as historical context, while doling out blame among various constituencies, including the Bush and Clinton administrations. Other than the overwrought score — a dishearteningly common trait in such fare — this commercial-free presentation in advance of its DVD release is emotional and powerful, mixing wrenching interviews with 9/11 families, striking video- and audioclips, and a general tone of rebuke.
Beginning with a 1997 CNN interview in which Osama bin Laden makes clear his contempt for the U.S., producer-director Linda Ellman methodically goes about chronicling how various forces conspired to prevent officials from recognizing attacks were imminent or implementing precautions against them. Told largely from the families’ perspective, the production culminates with former counter-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke’s memorable testimony in which he apologized to them by saying, “Your government failed you.”
Of course, how and why the government failed was the crux of the 9/11 Commission’s work, though a telling comment comes from security analyst Larry Johnson, who says the terror threat “wasn’t a priority” because bin Laden “hadn’t killed enough Americans” prior to Sept. 11. As callous as that sounds, that sense of complacency explains why pressure to control airline costs, for example, trumped concerns about safety.
Ellman deftly weaves various aspects of the story within a 90-minute package, from footage of the hijackers passing through security, and painful images of World Trade Center victims leaping from burning windows, to poignant conversations with family members. “Don’t worry, dad, it’ll be quick,” one recalls his son saying by phone as his plane bore down on the towers.
Throughout, the documentary drives home the lack of preparedness the commission documented, as the FAA “dithered” and the emergency system was “overwhelmed.” There are also uplifting moments, from the two men who escaped the Trade Center together to those who improbably survived within a stairwell — the latter tale recounted in a separate History Channel project.
“On Native Soil” breaks no new ground and studiously avoids some slippery older turf — making no reference to the seven-minute lag time after an aide informed President Bush that the country was under attack, perhaps the most damning moment in “Fahrenheit 911.” Nevertheless, “Soil” admirably documents a story that somehow feels as if it’s been told too often and still can’t be told too much.