Starring: Jules & Gedeon Naudet, the Fire Department of New York, the citizens of New York City
“When I came back that day to the firehouse, one firefighter came to me and he said, ‘You know, yesterday you had one brother. Today, you have fifty.'” (Jules Naudet, 9/11)
On 11 September 2001 I had a lie-in. I was moving to Edinburgh in a matter of days and was enjoying all my home comforts for as long as I possibly could, and that included my comfy bed. I woke up to my dad standing over me, trying to nudge me awake. “Chris,” he said urgently, “come on downstairs and see the telly. Two planes have flown into the World Trade Center”. Then he ran downstairs to keep watching. As I sat up and rubbed my eyes, I have to confess I thought to myself: “What the hell is the World Trade Center?”
It was a thought that, with ten years of history behind it, seems like the stupidest thing any human being could ever muster in their mind. But I was a naive 18-year-old back then and, having never been to New York or been interested in the world of finance, I had no reason to have been familiar with the Twin Towers. Still, my dad seemed interested in it for some reason, and he’d never woken me up to see the news before, so I stumbled downstairs to see what the big deal was. And then, like the rest of the world, I sat dumbstruck in front of the television for the rest of the day.
I feel I should defend my decision to review 9/11 on this site. Given my usual tongue-in-cheek review style, the site’s heavy focus on cult and horror films and the slew of cheesy schlock posters decorating the site’s edges – not to mention the site’s name – it may seem incredibly disrespectful to review such a serious documentary, one about an atrocious terrorist attack in which almost 3000 people died.
I have three reasons for reviewing 9/11 today. Firstly, as I write this it’s 11 September 2011, ten years to the day after the original attacks. Secondly, despite the quirky nature of most of the films I review, That Was A Bit Mental has a pretty wide-ranging criteria for films that qualify for inclusion in the site. Quite simply, any film that features something out of the ordinary is considered for TWABM, and to say the events of 9/11 were ‘out of the ordinary’ is perhaps the ultimate understatement. Finally, 9/11 is a fantastic documentary and the one that best illustrates the atrocities committed that day by far.
Originally, this was a documentary about firefighting. French brothers Jules and Gedeon Naudet wanted to make a film following a rookie fireman as he joins a New York fire department and learns the ropes, tackles his first fire and the like. To be fair, from the first ten or fifteen minutes of footage (which take place in the months preceding September 11) it looked like it was going to be a fairly shit documentary.
The rookie they were following, Tony, was a “white cloud” – a term used for firefighters who never get big fires while they’re on duty. Every time Tony was working, the fires weren’t happening. As one of the Naudets says, they had a good film about cooking – much of the footage involved the firefighters making dinner at the station – but a pretty bad one about firefighting. And then September 11 came.
That morning, the department got a report of a suspected gas leak – a fairly straightforward incident with no real danger. One of the brothers went with a small group to practice his filming while they checked it out, and while he filmed them he heard a noise above him. Pointing the camera upward, he unwittingly became one of the only people in the world to catch footage of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center.
What follows is a remarkable take on the events of that day, split into two stories. One follows the aforementioned brother as he follows the small team of firefighters to the WTC (they were the first team to arrive there that day), showing remarkable footage from inside the tower as the emergency services try to plan an unplannable rescue. The other follows the other brother who, upon hearing the news of the first attack, goes out onto the streets to document the mood there and ends up getting caught among the carnage as the towers collapse.
The only thing I don’t like about 9/11 is the talking head sections, where the firefighters chat about what happened. One firefighter in particular, James Hanlon (who used to be an actor before joining the FDNY), doesn’t come across as sincere and his ‘interview’ sections are clearly pre-written, dramatic statements that seem a little showy and don’t really suit the honest, raw tone of the rest of the film.
Hanlon’s ill-suited showboating aside, 9/11 is immensely powerful. Look, I don’t usually advocate this sort of thing, but here’s a link to the whole bloody thing. The DVD is out of print now, and buying it second-hand won’t raise money for the 9/11 charities like it did when it was originally on sale nine years ago. So here’s the whole thing. It’s an hour and 45 minutes long. Just watch it. It does a much better job of explaining the feelings of 9/11 in that time than I, or anyone else, could ever hope to in a million words of text.