Two decades after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America, documentary filmmakers are still trying to make sense of the horrific events — even as aftereffects continue to ripple through the geopolitical landscape.
The U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan has renewed political debate over the invasion launched in the wake of the 2001 attacks as conspiracy theories about 9/11 permeate discourse about the events. In a measure of how fraught the subject remains, Spike Lee cut 30 minutes of 9/11 truther material from the fourth and final episode of his HBO documentary, “NYC Epicenters 9/11-2021½,” after initially releasing it to the media for review and stoking further controversy by discussing his doubts in a New York Times interview about how the twin towers were destroyed.
Filmmakers and TV programmers acknowledge that these projects require delicate treatment — especially concerning graphic scenes of the attacks and their aftermath — but stress that 9/11 is an important topic to tackle. “The threads of what is happening in Afghanistan today stretch back to 9/11,” says Adam Wishart, director of “9/11: Inside the President’s War Room,” streaming this month on Apple TV Plus. “And therefore, it is critical that we understand it.”
Narrated by Emmy Award winner Jeff Daniels, the documentary recounts the 12 hours after the terror strikes and offers insight from President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell and other officials. “Learning from history is a vital part of our duty as citizens,” says Wishart. “And hearing directly from these former officials about what happened on 9/11 aids not only accountability but also provides lessons, understanding and context.”
Michael Kirk’s two-hour “Frontline” documentary “America After 9/11,” which debuted Sept. 7 on PBS, traces the U.S. government’s response to the terrorist attacks from George W. Bush’s administration through to that of Donald Trump. “We examine how we got to this level of distrust, where you have people running around angry about should I get vaccinated or not?” Kirk explains. “In the 1990s, would people be running around in America having fights about whether to take a vaccine or not that could prevent death? I don’t think so.”
“America After 9/11” draws on Kirk’s numerous documentaries about the catastrophic events that day, and while he stands by those earlier works, he believes it wasn’t until his latest doc that he and his team were able to connect the dots about what was happening in America. “And when we did that, it took us from 9/11 to Jan. 6, 2021,” he says.
“Frontline” also debuted Dan Reed’s “In the Shadow of 9/11,” about a group of Black men from Miami accused of planning an al-Qaida plot to blow up U.S. buildings. The series has recently streamed eight archival 9/11 docs as well.
“Our hope is that [these docs] really help the next generation of people, who are growing up now, piece together the history of what’s happened in the last 20 years in contemporary terms,” says “Frontline” executive producer Raney Aronson-Rath. “I think that there will be a great appetite for these docs, especially considering what’s going on now in Afghanistan.”
The History Channel has four new documentaries about the tragedy, including “9/11: I Was There,” a portrait of events captured by ordinary people. Eli Lehrer, executive VP of programming at History, says the network looks for new ways to approach the topic year after year.
“From a programming standpoint, we have found that asking people to enter that sort of emotional space in August or March is hard,” says Lehrer. “But when Sept. 11 rolls around, people do seem willing to stop and really remember and reflect and immerse themselves in programming that honors the events of those days and the sacrifices people made.”
Pamela Yoder and Steven Rosenbaum, considered the world’s leading historians on the tragedy, directed “The Outsider,” about the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum in Manhattan. The documentary, which premiered on Facebook last month and is available on Amazon and iTunes, follows the journey of the struggling novelist turned museum creative director Michael Shulan to build an institution that was “democratic” in its voice and curation.
The directing duo had unlimited access to the memorial and staff’s internal meetings, allowing for an inside look at the museum’s curatorial process, but sat on the footage until 2018, when they realized that Shulan was their protagonist.
“Every time I touched the material, the thing that spoke to us was Michael’s story,” says Rosenbaum. “We struggled with that because he’s not a hero in the conventional sense and he doesn’t win in the end. So, we had to get our arms around how to tell his story in a way that would be useful and relevant.”
Discovery Plus’ “No Responders Left Behind,” meanwhile, focuses on the fight waged by former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, social activist John Feal and FDNY hero Ray Pfeifer to get health benefits and compensation for 9/11 first responders.
“Our film isn’t really about 9/11 as much as it is about the 20 years that happened after,” says director Rob Lindsay. “Many of these first responders at ground zero got cancer, and almost all of them got respiratory problems. And if they didn’t get sick, they ended up getting PTSD.”
National Geographic’s six-part documentary “9/11: One Day in America,” also features first responders, along with survivors. The series, made in collaboration with the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, recounts close to every minute of that day. Director Daniel Bogado says that the series shows the horror as well as the humanity of the event.
“When you put them together, those stories are actually quite inspiring on their own,” he says. “You see the theme of solidarity and bravery and kindness and courage again and again and again. The sum of the parts becomes larger than themselves.”