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As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 fast approaches, you’ll have no shortage of options should you want — for whatever reason —to watch a documentary about it. As a mere sampling: there’s “One Day in America” from National Geographic, “Generation 9/11” from PBS, “9/11: Inside the President’s War Room” from Apple TV Plus, and an entire day’s worth of programming on the History Channel. All promise in-depth looks at one of the country’s darkest chapters, unprecedented access to those involved, and unique points of view — but only one documentary dealing with the crisis comes from Spike Lee, a New Yorker who will remind you of that fact with his every waking breath and burst of unmistakable laughter.

Watching all eight hours of “NYC Epicenters: 9/11 – 2021 ½,“ Lee’s opus for HBO on how his beloved city reeled from and responded to the nation’s biggest disasters in recent memory, inspires a potent mixture of frustration and awe. Having conducted over 200 interviews for his “documentary essay,” Lee constructs an oral history only he could, fueled by the vivid pulse of his own love for New York City and everyone who lives therein. At its most effective (episodes 3 and 4 on 9/11), “NYC Epicenters” combines archival footage and testimonies to create an essential archive of knowledge, pain and resilience. At its most confusing (episode 2 on … the insurrection?), it strays into barely related sidebars — almost always related to Trump — that quickly lose sight of what makes the series most powerful.

The first half of “NYC Epicenters” focuses, more or less, on the COVID-19 pandemic and summer of protests that followed George Floyd’s murder. Lee speaks with everyone including nurses, politicians, restaurant owners, first responders and Brooklyn faithful friends such as Jeffrey Wright and Rosie Perez. In the first episode, premiering Aug. 22, Lee sets the stage for a series that commemorates a city in both crisis and rebirth by highlighting the expertise of others, not to mention his own place as one of New York’s most enduring personalities.

It should surprise no one that Lee is an engaged interviewer who audibly encourages his subjects (credited with solemnity as “witnesses”) from just offscreen to be forthright. When speaking to the children of Sandra Santos-Vizcaino, the first public school teacher to die of COVID-19 in New York City, Lee first sets them at ease with avuncular teasing about their audacity to be Red Sox fans. He frequently asks people to repeat a sentence he likes or finds particularly powerful, a request they often fulfill by speaking it with more confidence than they did the first time around. Lee makes no bones about the fact that, despite interviewing over 200 people, this series is squarely from his perspective to the point that, for instance, his omnipresent red chyrons identify some as citizens of “Da People’s Republic of Brooklyn,” New Yorkers he dislikes as “NOT reppin’” their boroughs, and even Barack Obama as Barack “Da Brudda” Obama. So, no, “NYC Epicenters” isn’t particularly objective — which works in some instances, but absolutely sinks the second episode like a rock.

As with most every piece of work attempting to unravel the pandemic even as it continues to evolve and grow around us, these first two episodes simply can’t have the retrospect they need in order to do much more than react in real time to an ongoing crisis. But the first episode at least has the through line of detailing the pandemic’s immediate onset and aftermath; the second, unsure of what else to say, quickly loses the plot in favor of becoming yet another treatise on Why Trump Is Bad.

This chapter, airing Aug. 29, is wildly scattered to the point of becoming bizarre as Lee takes pains to connect most everything back to Trump (whom he exclusively refers to as “President Agent Orange”). At one point, he even takes the opportunity of interviewing various New York congresspeople — including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — to do a deep dive into the Jan. 6 siege of the Capitol that lasts almost a full half hour. Here, what began as a love letter to New York City suddenly becomes something else entirely.

It’d be one thing if this section dug into the worthy and relevant subject of how Trump, born in Queens, honed his persona of bombastic businessman that both repulsed the majority of his hometown and, eventually, won him the presidency. For a moment, it even seems like Lee and company will do exactly that when Al Sharpton insists that “to understand Donald Trump and his bigotry, you have to be a New Yorker.” Within minutes, however, Lee’s attention randomly turns to the ascendency of Kamala Harris in San Francisco for seemingly no reason other than he felt like talking to Sharpton about her while they were in the same room. As with the lengthy tangent on the insurrection, it appears as though Lee just got inspired to talk to people about political events he’s interested in without feeling much of a need to connect them back to its ostensible purpose of commemorating New York City in this 21st century — an understandable impulse, but not one that serves the project at hand.

This second episode becomes even more frustrating given the ones that follow. These installments of “NYC Epicenters,” chronicling the immediate and long-term impacts of 9/11, are as clear and tightly focused as the previous one is completely muddled.

The third episode, airing Sept. 5, is a deeply affecting two-hour study of how the city lived through Sept. 11, 2001 that weaves together testimonies from firefighters, documentarians, office workers, and lifelong New Yorkers such as his own wife and children. Lee and editor Barry Alexander Brown, with the invaluable assistance of archival producer Judy Aley, compile footage from news crews and eyewitnesses alike that gives a true sense of how the disaster looked and felt from all angles on that morning which, as dozens of interviewees remember with wistful pain, was “beautiful” before it wasn’t. Lee also makes sure to highlight the experience and service of Black New Yorkers — such as a tight-knit group of United Airlines flight attendants —who have rarely been afforded such attention. He even manages to land breakthrough moments of levity, such as in his conversation with a ferry captain who remembers evacuating people from the tip of Manhattan who balked when they realized they’d be going to — horror of horrors! — New Jersey.

The concluding episode, airing on Sept. 11, examines the day’s aftermath with probing curiosity and righteous fury for those who died, disappeared, and were irrevocably, physically changed. Lee’s skill at making people feel at ease shines through here in his interviews with victims’ families, which never feel like the exploitative rubbernecking so many other documentaries are prone to embodying. And to the series’ credit, the depiction of the aggressive patriotism that marked the days after 9/11 is closely followed by acknowledgment of the aggressive racism that Middle Easterners experienced, and continue to experience, as a result. In the series’ original cut, the only significant tangent of these 9/11 chapters featured Lee devoting significant time to alternate theories of how the towers and Building 7 collapsed — a tangent that immediately sparked significant controversy, and has since been edited out before the episode even aired.

The messiness of that excised segment is even more unfortunate given how otherwise focused these episodes are, especially in contrast to the opening pair that hopscotches around recent history with such abandon. When speaking with those who directly experienced 9/11 and its awful aftermath, Lee and  “NYC Epicenters” rises to their own occasion with a portrait of New York City that feels raw, composed and personal all at once. Be warned, though: if you or someone you know lived through 9/11 itself, you may not want or need to see this. Episode 2 in particular includes devastating montage after devastating montage of workers blinking through ash and shock, smoke enveloping lower Manhattan into darkness, and desperate people leaping from the Twin Towers as they burned. And as the series notes, 9/11 was a disaster broadcast live across our television screens for a generation to see and absorb in an unprecedented way; even now, 20 years later, I didn’t appreciate how shaken I’d be to watch it all unfold again in almost real time, just as I did then. And yet, after the disappointing confusion of the previous chapters, I was glad to walk away from these with a greater understanding of a moment that irrevocably changed my life, city and country, as told by a man whose curiosity, sympathy, and solidarity radiates throughout.

““NYC Epicenters: 9/11 – 2021 ½” premieres Sunday, Aug. 22, at 8 p.m. on HBO.

(This review has been edited to reflect that the original cut of the series’ the fourth episode now differs from the one that will air on September 11.)

When Spike Lee’s ‘NYC Epicenters: 9/11 – 2021½’ Doesn’t Get Distracted by Trump, It’s Astonishing: TV Review

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