Directed by James Hanlon, Gedeon Naudet, Jules Naudet
9/11 is a harrowing film simply because of the subject matter and the intimacy with that event, but it’s also incredibly frustrating to watch from a filmmaking standpoint. The film was shot by two brothers, Gedeon and Jules Naudet, who were following around a young firefighter named Tony Benatatos before the September 11th attacks. Along with the two brothers, the film was directed by James Hanlon, himself a New York City firefighter who is now a television director and producer in Los Angeles.
I can’t help but think that Hanlon (who features himself prominently to end the film) had the biggest role in shaping the documentary’s frustrating narrative. I only say frustrating because the footage is so tragically riveting that all you really have to do is present it in order, spliced in with perhaps a few interviews, to present the events of that day. Instead there is a clear effort to dramatize the already incredibly dramatic events.
9/11 is a film that was being made to follow around a probationary firefighter and get a sense of what goes into life in a firehouse, but because of the ‘hook,’ we begin with some of the footage of the terrorist attacks, as if to hold our attention through the less noteworthy segments of the film. The early portion of the documentary is actually quite engaging as we get to know the firefighters and empathize with them.
As this is given to us, there are a series of talking heads with firefighters reflecting on that time and on the day of September 11th. Though Tony Benatatos is the main subject of the film, he is suspiciously absent from these talking head segments. This raises the question in your head, does Tony die in the attacks? As morbid and slightly twisted as this is considering these are real people, the absence of Tony (who survives, it turns out) is a clear, dramatic choice. When Tony finally shows up following the attacks, we are meant to be relieved (and I was), but suddenly he joins the other firefighters in the talking head segments. It’s just an example of the directors meddling with a story that needs no meddling.
There’s also the strange use of some kind of haunting operatic music underneath footage of the destruction at and around Ground Zero (apparently this was a Hans Zimmer track from the movie Gladiator). Once again this feels completely unnecessary. We get the point, and the footage on its own is unbelievable. In several moments, the French brothers describe the eerie silence of the typically busy streets near the World Trade Center, and yet they put in this slightly cheesy music to create a mood that already exists. The silence is enough.
The most egregious decision, in my opinion, is the voice over that ends the film. Throughout the documentary we hear from the firefighters themselves and watch as they get choked up recalling the events. It’s tragic and moving, but then we also see a series of talking head segments with the directors themselves. Whereas the talking heads with the firefighters are shot straight on, with no stylistic flair, the segments with the directors are filmed with more dramatic lighting, the camera at a more askew angle, and this draws more attention to them than to the event itself.
And while Gedeon and Jules have a lot of interesting stuff to say considering they were right there alongside the firefighters, even inside the first building during its collapse, Hanlon’s words are way too scripted, meant to evoke a feeling already created by what we’ve seen and which his words add nothing to.
Hanlon himself was one of the responding firefighters, so his words have merit, but instead of talking about his own experience, as the others do, he talks about the firemen as a whole and about Tony’s experience. He has plenty to say, but instead he acts as a voice for the entire unit, one that is completely redundant considering all we have seen.
He says things like, “At the time, we didn’t think that there could be anything worse than losing a single firefighter. Looking back, we were all kind of innocent,” and the documentary ends with him describing how the documentary was meant to be about Tony becoming a man and that on that single day he became one.
Look, I guess it’s fine, but there’s just too much clear effort to wrap a bow on this story that doesn’t need one.
Because of their intimate access to a group of firefighters, Jules and Gedeon are close to the action, and because of that we see and hear horrifying things inside the World Trade Center. Watching the firefighters’ and civilians’ confusion regarding what’s happened is terrifying and incredibly engaging. We hear them repeat incorrect stories about what happened (some thought there was a third plane) and speculate as to what else might be going on. Knowing all we do now, it’s incredible watching the understandable confusion at the scene as it was unfolding.
The power of this documentary is just that the filmmakers were there when it happened. While it is occasionally interesting to hear what the firefighters have to say, the lasting impact is what we see as the filmmakers are wildly running around capturing the events as they unfold. And there certainly is a lasting impact to these scenes. There are many moments that are hard to get out of your head.
My complaints about the documentary do not take away from the sense of awe you get watching it. The film more than captures the sense of horror, dread and shock as the event unfolds, and I suppose part of the impact of the documentary was just that it was released so soon after the attacks (six months later in a commercial-less CBS broadcast). In some ways 9/11 got the story out before many other similar documentaries. The footage is harrowing, but there must have been a sense by the filmmakers to get the story out quickly considering how much production (the interviews, editing, etc.) was crammed into that following six months.
Something about that feels wrong to me. This is an important documentary, but the quickness of its release combined with the dramatic choices makes it all feel a little too neat and packaged, certainly made in a certain style to fit a television broadcast (with the music, talking head segments and an apparent sound-edit to remove some of the more disturbing noises inside the building).
Up Next: Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater (2013), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)