Ten years, and still too soon for those who will forgo television’s Sept. 11 mega-wallow and head for the nearest “Storage Wars” marathon instead. I get it. The memories are hard. The maudlin alert is orange.
In advance of the barrage, I watched more than 35 hours of specials and documentaries and barely made a dent in what’s out there. Even as I write this, DVDs are still arriving: two solid weeks of 9/11 shows from Animal Planet, TLC, History, Smithsonian, Showtime, Nickelodeon, PBS, NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, Investigation Discovery, Univision, OWN, and on and on. This is just the prerecorded stuff, not the live wall-to-wall coverage you can expect in the final hours of retrospect.
TV is coming at us with much too much too much — content that is surprisingly rote, perfunctory and often unimaginative. A lot of what you’ll see on TV lacks the power to deeply study the events and their impact on culture. It’s as if most networks were afraid of getting too introspective or thinky about 9/11. Narrative trumps thought.
Instead we get clip jobs and sound bites, with a strange mix of nostalgia and despair. The motto was “Never forget,” and TV never did. For most Americans, after all, the television set remains the principal experience of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Thousands died as millions watched. As such, TV lays rightful claim to all anniversaries of it. There are miles and miles of footage to repackage, re-edit, repurpose, reflect.
It starts now, Sunday night, with National Geographic’s exclusive, detailed, but not terribly illuminating “George W. Bush: The 9/11 Interview” — promoted by the channel as the only in-depth sit-down the former president is giving this time around. (It was taped months ago.)
Here Bush meticulously recounts his actions, his anger, his thoughts. The Florida classroom with its cheerfully regimented reading drills, the president’s Chief of Staff Andrew Card whispering in Bush’s ear; Air Force One’s frantic leap frog from one military base to the next as events dramatically unfolded in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania; the emotional speech the president delivered atop the World Trade Center’s rubble three days later, via bullhorn.
It’s the president’s opportunity to adjust a slightly askew picture frame. He sat through the classroom reading of the pet goat story because he didn’t want to alarm the children. He was madder than spit that the Secret Service wouldn’t let Air Force One return immediately to Washington. He never wanted to be a wartime president. He thinks that over time, Sept. 11 will eventually return to its former status as just another day. He is as helpful and lucid as an ex-president can be, but he seems to have little else to say. He doesn’t seem ready to go back — not yet, not fully.
Which raises the question of whether any of us are ready?
Except for a few beautifully made, thoughtful and deeply satisfying projects that I wouldn’t want you to miss, most of TV’s attempts to revisit 9/11 feel constricted by a sense of duty and mandated reverence, where heart is replaced by “heart” and so many people are seen saying the things they think they ought to say, telling stories they’ve told before, tidying up their emotions in a way they think everyone most wants to hear.
This isn’t just television’s problem. I know enough newspaper and magazine writers and editors to have a sense of the struggle to find fresh stories and angles for this anniversary. A paralysis sets in at the computer keyboard; Sept. 11 just doesn’t feel like 10 years ago. This is also clear at Ground Zero in Manhattan, where the builders of the memorial race to meet a 10th anniversary deadline and the skyscrapers are only half-built. The 10th anniversary looms — has loomed — like an obligation.
Some charge ahead anyway with fresh purpose, and succeed for different reasons. Smithsonian Channel delivers a sturdy, powerful wrap-up with “9/11: Day That Changed the World,” which airs Sept. 5. This one feels the most complete, with a mix of footage, audio recordings and an unflinching look at the events, mixed with interviews with key players, including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Clarke and Rudy Giuliani. (It is narrated, oddly enough, by Martin Sheen, whose job during Sept. 11 was to play fictional Democratic President Jed Bartlet on “The West Wing,” whom certain viewers came to regard as balm in a parallel universe of alterna-politics.)
Early on, my benchmark for any Sept. 11 show focuses on the limits the producers have set for themselves; how they choose to depict misery. This can range from the understandably gentle (in her kids’ special on Nickelodeon on Sept. 1, Linda Ellerbee wears orange Converse sneakers and never shows the planes hitting the twin towers) to the necessarily grisly (“9/11 Crime Scene Investigators” on Investigation Discovery, Sept. 4, heads straight for the medical examiner’s refrigerated trucks and the Fresh Kills Landfill). Just when I was wondering if any of these shows would use footage of people who jumped to their deaths — Sept. 11’s eternal ghosts — Smithsonian’s project does, and it does so frankly and without added drama, as I think any documentary wishing to be the complete story absolutely must.
Fatigue comes quickly. The same shot of the second plane hitting the South Tower of the World Trade Center. The same clip of the same ambulance. The same sound clips (“We have some planes . . . ”), the same sickening rumble of collapse, the same dirt, the same tears, the same smoke, the same sky. The same forlorn music choices.
Which is one reason why some chose instead to focus on the reemergence of Ground Zero as both a memorial and business hub. There are different approaches to this: Showtime will air Jim Whitaker’s achingly elegant film “Rebirth” on Sept. 11 — read my colleague Ann Hornaday on that — with its time-elapsed, decade-long progress of Ground Zero set to Philip Glass’s score. Fox News’s Shepard Smith has a more robustly patriotic look at the rebuilding effort on Sept. 2.
Yet when it comes to architecture and design and the science of security, you can do no better than PBS’s “Nova,” weighing in on Sept. 7 (on WETA)with “Engineering Ground Zero,” an intelligent exploration of the idea of strength: strong materials, strong design, strong people.
History — the channel, not the noun — has two distinctive documentaries, which set themselves apart and will air commercial-free.
Easily my favorite viewing experience in everything I watched is History’s “9/11: The Days After” (airing Sept. 9), which makes use of some 400 hours of stray news footage, personal videos — stuff gathered by pros and amateurs that, on its own, wouldn’t amount to much. Yet, woven together without narration or seemingly any unifying theme, the film becomes a unique tapestry of the feel and movement of Sept. 11 and the week that followed. It has Ground Zero footage but it also goes to a Wal-Mart in Texas to watch people buy flags. It treats the viewer with the subtlest possible touch.
Other viewers may be less concerned with artistry than I am, preferring more linear treatments: timelines, facts, corresponding footage, unobtrusive editing styles, pop ballads. All of these shows — even Animal Planet’s sappy premiere of “Saved,” which focuses on pets who helped their owners emotionally heal after the attacks — attempt to suit the right stripe of viewer. Some want all firefighters, all the time. Some want computer animation of the exact way that girders in a skyscraper melt from intense heat. Some want poetry, some want jingo. Some Washingtonians will want too see more about the Pentagon attack — and to a large extent, they’re out of luck. New York and Shanksville, Pa., still get the lion’s share of sympathy and attention.
Point being, somewhere out there is the 9/11 show made specially for you. But keep in mind that the show you think won’t affect you will turn out to be the very piece of work that delivers you back to that vertiginous rush of grief. That is the lasting feature of Sept. 11: Its ability to still get you in the midst of an overwhelming multimedia surge. Unexpectedly, I found myself riveted by History’s “Voices From Inside the Towers” (airing Sept. 10). This deceptively simple doc retells the day through the voice mails and recorded calls made from the upper reaches of the twin towers.
Well into that one, I had what I suppose will be my deepest 10-years-gone moment, when a woman named Anne Mulderry describes th e voice mails that her son, Stephen Mulderry, left from an office phone on the South Tower’s 87th floor: I’ll be all right and I’ll call you.
The tower collapsed and he was gone and, his mother says, “my family and I had joined all the losses of all the ages.” She listened to his messages over and over until there came a time that she couldn’t listen to them anymore. In the magical thinking of grief, she had amended his last message. “I’ll be all right,” she says it goes, in her head, now: “And you will, too.”
Immersed in it once more, struck silent by Anne Mulderry’s articulate sorrow, I realized I still own the same couch, different apartment, upon which to lay there transfixed by the increasingly abstract aches of the 9/11 era.
It’s still too soon, too close, to make the best TV about Sept. 11. It will be up to another generation of producers and documentarians (perhaps in September 2021 or 2026 or 2051, or not in any September or round-numbered year) to sift through the piled gigabytes of what remains of our footage, interviews and images and from that create works of permanent meaning and beauty.