- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 12, 2002

Most of us viewed the attack on the World Trade Center on television as an exploded skyline ablaze. The extraordinary, never-before-broadcast footage from CBS's documentary "9/11," broadcast Sunday evening, showed New York City firemen converging at a makeshift command post inside Tower One and provided an eerie new perspective. We watch as order is temporarily imposed over the chaos with the arrival of the department brass. We watch as scores of firemen make their way through the vast lobby, unhesitatingly and even unhurriedly, ready to begin what we know is their long, last climb into the sky.

It is a scene of mortal doom. It is also a scene of almost overwhelming claustrophobia. The camera focuses on the fire chiefs, restless, consternated and confined to a space that quickly becomes a colossal blind spot to the morning's events. On September 11, television viewers watching from thousands of miles away knew what they were looking at when Tower Two came smashing down. Inside Tower One, however, as the camerawork in "9/11" makes clear, New York's Bravest were in the dark, literally and figuratively. They experienced the implosion of their sister tower as an ungraspable phenomenon of noise, smoke and ash. In revealing the tunnel vision of this terrible immediacy, "9/11" does, as its narrator says, "open a new chapter in the most important story of our time." This new chapter, however, contains an unexpected plot twist in the way we read the day's cataclysmic events.

Long before September 11, Jules and Gedeon Naudet, two French-born filmmakers, set out to film the story of a rookie fireman. That September 11 happened during their rookie's probationary period obviously changed the narrative as they had expected to shoot it. But if the narrative structure changed, the narrative focus didn't. Or, rather, the Naudet brothers chose not to let it.

Regrettably, "9/11" conveys no sense of connection between the attack on the World Trade Center and the "attack" on the United States. In other words, there is little or no mention that this atrocity was an act of war that led this country to mobilize its armies and jump-start an international coalition against global terrorism. No "Support Our Guys in Afghanistan" message here. No Afghanistan, either. The absence of a broader context is disorienting. In many ways, "9/11" never reaches beyond the story of the day the men of Engine 7 and Ladder 1 had to fight a really, really big fire.

Exaggeration? Not really. "I knew this would be the worst day of my life as a firefighter," says one fireman, reflecting on what it was like to see the first plane hit the World Trade Center. This is true. Three-hundred-and forty-three firemen perished on September 11. But September 11 was the worst day of all our lives as Americans, and in the totally intimate focus of "9/11," there is no glimpse of this national grief or the resolve to fight back that was born of it. "9/11" celebrates our heroes, but by portraying their sacrifice in an ahistorical vacuum, a vital part of their story and ours is lost.


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