There’s a moment in HBO’s “In Memoriam,” a moving compilation of video and photographs depicting the events of 9/11, that captures the tug of war at work in dealing with this material. As we watch video of a person who has jumped from an upper floor of the World Trade Center plummet to his death, a voice behind the cameraman says, “Don’t take pictures of that.” The cameraman doesn’t turn away. “In Memoriam” urges the that we shouldn’t turn away either, that we must look, and look again.
As a scroll informs us at the start, the aftermath of the attacks on the WTC was the most documented event in history. This documentary from Brad Grey Pictures doesn’t focus on informing us of anything new, but instead pieces together video, audio clips and still photographs from 16 news organizations and 115 individuals to capture the day. It also tells the story from the point of view of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who, with senior members of his administration, provides interviews discussing events and feelings. It’s Giuliani who makes the argument for the film in the first place, claiming that only by confronting the horrors of Sept. 11 repeatedly can we ensure that we do everything to prevent another similar catastrophe.
Docu, which has no director credited, has a mournful tone, with plenty of orchestral music that was recorded in April by the New York Philharmonic. It proceeds mostly chronologically but is not obsessed with documenting what happened moment by moment, and it does return frequently to the most visually compelling images, the plane crashes and the collapse of the towers. We see endless angles on these events — from the different boroughs, from various perspectives near the towers, even from a hovering NYPD helicopter that came to the scene after the first plane crash — as well as seeing and hearing the emotional reactions of the people nearby, mostly the sense of awed disbelief.
Giuliani and his staff contribute to that sense, taking us through their initial discovery of what was happening and the growing conclusion that this was something of historic proportions, something that Giuliani refers to as “almost too much to bear.” A good deal of emphasis is put on the personal element of their reaction, as the mayor’s executive assistant realizes that her firefighter husband must have died when the towers came tumbling down.
There is a sentimentality at work as the piece progresses, a kind of canned, if welcome and truthful, assurance that our grief will make us stronger. Not only does the docu depict eulogies, but it is intended to be one as well. It’s a reflection, not an examination, on the events of that day, and while it isn’t enlightening, it is certainly tear-jerking.