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Jewish World Review March 15, 2002 / 2 Nisan, 5762

Diana West

Diana West
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The tunnel vision of '9/11' | 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' documentary "9/11" showing New York City firemen converging at a makeshift command post inside Tower One provides an eerie new perspective. We watch as order is temporarily imposed over chaos with the arrival of the department brass. We watch as scores of firemen make their way through the vast lobby, unhesitating and resolute, 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 Sept. 11, TV viewers watching from thousands of miles away knew what they were looking at when Tower Two came smashing down. Inside Tower One, however, as "9/11"'s camerawork 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 Sept. 11, of course, Jules and Gedeon Naudet, two French-born filmmakers, set out to film the story of a rookie fireman. That Sept. 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.

The documentary conveys no sense of connection between the attack on the World Trade Center and the "attack" on the World Trade Center. In other words, there is little or no mention that this atrocity was an act of war that led the United States to mobilize its armies and jump-start an international coalition against global terrorism. No "Support Our Guys in Afghanistan" message here. No Afghanistan, either. (Not even Osama bin Laden.) This is not to say that the Naudet brothers were required to use their unique video footage to produce a cross between a Don Rumsfeld briefing special and "Mrs. Miniver." But 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. Out of the almost 3,000 deaths at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 343 were firemen. But Sept. 11 was also the worst day of all our lives as Americans, and in the relentlessly intimate focus of "9/11" there is no glimpse of this national grief, or the resolve to fight back that was born of it.

"Do I feel it's given me more of sense of self-worth?" says the rookie fireman toward the end, likely parroting questions put to him by the filmmakers. "Yes. Do I feel like it's made me a man -- what's a man?"

Such a line might work for film noir, but this is real-life as no moviemaker could imagine it. The documentary "9/11" celebrates its heroes all right, but by portraying their sacrifice in a historical vacuum, a vital part of their story -- and ours -- is lost.

JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Diana West