We watch... so you don't have to.

Coming of Age on September 11

CBS ran the documentary film 9/11 Sunday. And I watched it.

I figured everyone in America would watch it, maybe everyone in the world, but a quick show of hands around the TeeVee office showed me as one of the only ones who tuned in.

Maybe it's a regional thing. I speak of an office, but of course I'm here in New York while most of the rest of them are way over in California. A couple of my co-workers on TeeVee -- people I do think of as friends even though I've only met them face-to-face once or maybe even never... (Sorry if this bursts your bubble of illusion about the TeeVee family, but I'm writing from the heart here, and not for the funny.) A couple of these friends of mine said that they've seen enough, more than enough, of what happened on September 11th -- they didn't need more and they didn't tune in there on the eve of the sixth month since.

I felt I had to watch 9/11. I... I find it hard to explain without feeling like a sheep or an idiot or a cliché. I want to know as much as I can about what happened and I don't really know why. I watched a lot of TV the day of, a lot of TV the following week. I needed to. I don't like to think it's the rubberneck-at-the-car-accident impulse, but I don't have a better explanation.

I feel I'm looking for some kind of catharsis. Something to wrap it all up, to clean it all out. Something to keep me from checking the skyline as I drive by.

I've fought very hard to not write publically about September 11th. Other people are better writers, and, heck, I'm no one special. I'm not the ambassador of New York City, I'm just from there.

But I am angry at the ridiculously manipulative filmmaking of 9/11. Never mind the actual documentary parts of the film, which are powerful and frightening. Especially since I finally made my pilgrimage to the site just last week. The film communicates the individual magnitude of being there; and the site and the surrounding area communicated to me the collective magnitude of what happened.

Six months later and the dust of the towers still covers most of the neighborhood. Seeing the blank, broken windows of the surrounding buildings, seeing the Burger King where my wife forgot her purse in the course of one of our dates over ten years ago, broken and with the words "TEMP. POLICE HQ" spray-painted on the side....

I've got a map of New York in my head and now it's got a hole in it. During my pilgrimage I found myself having trouble getting my bearings; like a moth using the moon for navigation, I used the World Trade towers to work out which way I should walk, and with them gone, I can't tell uptown from downtown.

All right, let me drag myself back to the point, here. My personal story is nothing special -- thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers could tell you the same. The point here is that I am angry at the manipulation of the filmmakers Jules and Gedeon Naudet, the French documentarians, and presumably their producers and editors. This is what they do in their film: They show us the Probie firefighter Tony Benetatos before September 11th, as the Naudet brothers were making their film on becoming a firefighter in New York City. And we see interview segments after September 11th with other men from the station, but nothing from the Probie. Over and over, it is stressed how he's never been tested, never seen a fire. Over and over they foreshadow what is coming, even though we all know what is coming. And we keep seeing other men from the station after the fact, but the Probie, he's only there in old footage from before September 11th.

Does he die? What do you think? Of course you think he dies.

And then, after the attacks, when everyone but the Probie has returned to the station house, and we really think he's dead -- then he returns at last, and then the filmmakers show us him in after-the-fact interview footage.

This is shameless. As if September 11th needed to have some human-sized tension added. As if we needed to be thinking about the fate of this one handsome young hero-with-a-capital-H because we couldn't really feel the violent deaths of tens of hundreds of nameless office workers. Just like the sinking of the Titanic and the bombing of Pearl Harbor needed romantic triangles to make them worthwhile and interesting, we needed to wonder if this one Probie firefighter would make it out alive.

Never mind the destruction of two office buildings and thousands of people.

The filmmakers were in the right place at the right time -- although you could say they were in the spectactularly wrong place at the right time, maybe. If what you wanted was to get a film record of one of the most terrible events in American history, you couldn't ask for better luck. And they made it out alive and with their footage, which is as much as any documentarian could wish for.

And this is what the Naudet brothers did with it. What they did with the public trust of their priceless hours of film of September 11th. They made it into a sanitized and manipulative coming-of-age story.

Can't you just see Josh Hartnett in the remake?

When I took my walk past where the World Trade Center used to be I couldn't. No, I couldn't at all.


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