The faces of New York’s top firefighters, as they stood in the lobby of the World Trade Center’s Tower 1 the morning of Sept. 11, told a story America never heard on the news or read in the papers — the story, as one observer in CBS’s “9/11” says, of “disbelief … maybe panic.” Translation: fear. As bone-tingling as some of the footage in this feature documentary-turned-news show can be, it’s that state of incredulity that opens a window for new impressions about Sept. 11; to date, so many have been formed solely by footage of the plane crashes and the fleeing civilians and, in the aftermath of the attacks, the fortitude of Mayor Rudy Giuliani. By taking the footage of the Naudet brothers, two Frenchmen shooting a documentary on a rookie firefighter, and then using them as witnesses, CBS has packaged a compelling two-hour news show that reaches its emotional zenith when a fire chief tackles a filmmaker as the Gotham streets are rapidly covered in debris and dust — as clear a picture of this holocaust as has been seen to date. Enough time has transpired since the attack — when the repeated airing of the planes hitting the Towers numbed viewers — that a graphic and even horrifying retelling is not only worthy but necessary to remind us why this country remains in a state of emergency.
The footage of the attacks and rescue efforts are buffered by the recollections of firefighters from downtown’s Engine 7, Ladder 1, whose commander, Joseph Pfeifer, was the first chief in the towers after the attack. “9/11,” in many ways, is more his story than that of the rookie whom Jules and Gedeon Naudet were following for a documentary.
Pfeifer is seen as a decision maker, a father figure, a risk-taker and eventually a victim as he loses his brother, a fellow firefighter, whom he last sees at the command post. It reinforces the idea that the Naudets’ footage may well be the last time many of these people were seen alive.
What’s not seen, though their off-camera presence is jolting and tenses the stomach muscles, are the bodies falling from the upper floors that land with a deafening thud. Each boom gives the firefighters pause, their train of thought derailed every 60 seconds or so by that sound of death.
Even when the show starts to take on surreal moments — an elevator opening and several office workers walk off oblivious to the mayhem — those jarring sounds return the viewer to the grisly nature of this event. The camera captures the firefighters milling around unsure of their next move; “9/11” shows no heroic deeds.
The Naudets began their project, with the assistance of firefighter James Hanlon, on June 9, when they began following the rookie Tony Benetatos through his nine months of probation at downtown’s Engine 7, Ladder 1. The footage they collected in his first three months on the job was mostly of their young charge handling his cleaning duties — trucks, dishes, etc. — and a full-dress funeral for a rookie who died on the job. He says he hopes he never has to go to another one, but equally eerie is the shot of Benetatos on a rooftop training session at night, the office lights from the Twin Towers providing the illumination for the scene.
The filmmakers become part of the story while tagging along on a mundane report of a gas leak. Standing at an intersection, a loud roar gets Jules and the firefighters to look up, first with their eyes, then with the camera, as he captures the first jet crashing into Tower 1. Gedeon remains at the firehouse with the lone man not sent to the scene: Benetatos. Gedeon captures the probie’s impatience and helplessness, though the story shifts to one brother’s concern for another once Benetatos joins with a retired fire chief and the two head to ground zero. The relief of the firefighters — and the filmmakers — is compelling evidence of the unique camaraderie among these men who, within hours, would be dubbed heroes. “Yesterday you had one brother,” a firefighter tells Gedeon. “Today you have 50.”
Film ends with assorted snapshots of the dead and missing firefighters assembled in groups of four, a recording of “Danny Boy” reflecting the overwhelming number of firefighters of Irish descent. It plays on and on, each group of photos more troubling than the last, until an unfathomable number is reached. It’s a moving tribute.
Sponsor Nextel took the somber tone of the docu’s interviews to create commercials that blended with the show, creating an illusion that somehow they are more patriotic than the other phone companies.
The three commercial breaks, which started with comments from Nextel CEO Tim Donahue, teetered on propaganda. Rarely would the newly formed Homeland Security office have such a captive audience willing to embrace its agenda.
By placing such a pro-Bush administration effort at the front of the show, the program began tainted. The quality of the filmmaking and the power of the images, however, leveled the political playing field immediately.