WTC: The First 24 Hours
What We Saw
Operation Enduring Freedom: America Fights Back
It’s a professional secret among documentary filmmakers that most of the footage used to illustrate the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor are actually recreated scenes from both American and Japanese propaganda films, made months and even years after the attack. The Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York was never fated to be as sketchily captured for posterity.
Lower Manhattan is a hive of activity, even before nine in the morning, and this would explain why there was a cameraman standing directly beneath the path of the first plane that hit the towers and why, in the hour or so that followed, an almost infinite number of lenses, amateur and professional, were trained on the towers, capturing every concievable angle of that morning’s horrible events.
Jules and Gedeon Naudet’s 9/11 began as an independant documentary on a rookie firefighter at the one downtown New York fire station that, miraculously, didn’t lose a single crewman. Jules, who captured the first attack, ended up inside the towers when they collapsed, while his brother circled the scene with various anxious fire crew. Together, they produced what will probably be the definitive document of that day.
Inside the North Tower, Jules’ camera recorded the awful sound of bodies hitting the plaza outside, and the last moments of men like Fire Dept. Chaplain Mychal Judge, walking in circles in the lobby, praying quietly. The cloud of debris rolls over Jules not once but twice, but the greatest sense of emotional devastation is at the firehall blocks away, where the survivors wait for casualty reports, and Gedeon films returning firefighters, asking if they’ve seen his brother. It’s a rough, sometimes awkward document, but it’s unique among collections of 9/11 footage in that it has a story, and characters that you have time to get to know.
WTC: The First 24 Hours is the work of videographer Etienne Sauret, whose camera captured impact of the second plane and the collapse of both towers, and then plunged into the streets around Ground Zero. Sauret’s film - available on the disc in both long and short versions, with a picture gallery of stills - is utterly unlike the novelistic 9/11. There isn’t a word of narration or a note of music, just long, widescreen pans over the rubble and wreckage and into the gutted office towers, health clubs, delis and hotels, and long tracking shots through the crowds of firemen and rescue workers converging on the site as soon as the smoke cleared. Perhaps the gruesome beauty of Sauret’s images - ruins swathed in smoke and framed with epic proportions - might seem inappropriate to some viewers, but it is affecting and awesome.
The DVD that comes with What We Saw, CBS News’ 9/11 commemorative book, begins with the network’s news coverage of the attack, and contains an anthology of reports and stories aired in the months following the attack. It’s a nice record of how the media processed the explosion of grief and rage that came in the aftermath, and ended up playing the “human interest” angle. A more striking choice would have been to stick with two uninterrupted hours of broadcast footage from that morning alone, but it’s doubtful that CBS has the will or luxury to make choices as stark as a filmmaker like Sauret.
Operation Enduring Freedom: America Fights Back is basically a U.S. Department of Defense documentary primer on the attack on the Taliban and al Qaeda that followed the September attacks. Objectivity and probing analysis of the first battle in the War on Terrorism don’t come with the package; the core of the piece is carefully censored footage of the grim frontline skirmishes in the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan. Unlike the Naudet’s film, there are few characters, a sketchy storyline, and a hopeless letdown of an ending in that the villain of the piece - Osama bin Laden - escapes. Production values are stuck in the Top Gun era, with tinny guitar solos and Lee Greenwood’s bathetic “God Bless the USA” as the theme song. It might be a wildly unsatisfying historical record, but its an utterly compelling argument for the absolute necessity of independent documentary filmmakers.