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No tears for CBS’s ‘9/11’

Mar 18, 2002  •  Post A Comment

I didn’t cry. I expected to cry. I think I even wanted to cry. Why didn’t I? Was it me? Or was it that I felt too manipulated, too overhyped and too disappointed to cry? Whatever. The much-ballyhooed CBS special “9/11,” about firefighters responding to the terrorist assault on the World Trade Center, was a serious disappointment.
It was not a tribute worthy of firefighters who risked or lost their lives in this epochal, terrible tragedy, and it did not bring either the heroism or the horror of it into sharper focus for viewers-as was implicitly promised in the oh-so-tasteful publicity that CBS lavished on the show in advance.
CBS affiliates were apparently urged to air local tie-ins in their late newscasts following the prime-time special, thus adding to a certain unsavory self-promotional aura. Even the hushed, melodramatic way the staff announcer would murmur “This … is CBS” during breaks seemed corny and trumped-up-and thus insulting.
The focus of the two-hour telecast was documentary footage shot by two French filmmakers who happened to be shooting some video verite about a young “probee”-a fledgling fireman serving out his probationary period-at one of the fire stations that would be called into emergency service when the towers were hit.
Thus the first 20 minutes of the two-hour broadcast had nothing whatever to do with the attack and instead gave us a trifling profile of the young man; he was seen in the firehouse living quarters and getting doused by prankish comrades and so on. As it turns out, when the call came in to respond to the fire, the young man was left behind at the station. Thus devoting 20 minutes to him seemed particularly irrelevant-like padding, frankly.
Unseen heroes
We were supposedly going to see a study in, a lesson in, a portrait in, heroism. We already know there was no shortage of heroes or heroics on that day or in the agonizing days that followed, as the search for survivors, and the discovery of more bodies, continued. Robert De Niro, the host of the program, told us it was all about heroism himself. Repeatedly. But alas, we didn’t see a lot of heroism. We knew it was happening but we didn’t see it. We saw a lot of understandable confusion and justifiable alarm. But a good deal of footage was devoted to firefighters in the lobby of one of the towers milling around and trying to determine what was happening.
Then when the other tower was hit, they had to dismantle their command center and move to the other lobby. And during some of this period, people watching on television actually had a more comprehensive idea of what was happening than the men on the scene did.
As for the French filmmaking brothers, we were supposed to be on the edges of our seats regarding their fates as the program went on. They were said to be heroes, too, but how far are we going to stretch that definition? They were on the scene making a movie about a small thing that turned into a huge thing, and like any filmmakers worth a damn, they kept shooting when all hell broke loose. But that is basic minimum professionalism, not heroism.
Dust and debris
One of the brothers was out on the street when the second plane hit the second tower. He was panning jerkily up and down from the towers to onlookers in the street and on the sidewalk. And he just happened to pan down as the plane hit, thus getting only a partial shot of it. That was bad luck. But later when the towers were crumbling and one of the filmmakers ran down the street with his camera rolling, he didn’t stop and turn around and shoot, as many a brave camera operator would have. He just ran and let the camera record whatever it saw-dust hitting the street and other debris falling.
The absolute worst thing about the program, though, was its dehorrification of the whole monstrous act. It was barely mentioned, if ever mentioned, who was responsible for the atrocity; is it politically incorrect to do that now, or to be bitter or angry or want justice?
Any shots considered too graphic-of people leaping from the buildings, for instance-were removed out of fear they would be just too much for the viewing audience. And yet it was deemed somehow relevant and proper to leave in a good deal of obscene language, including the F-word, on the grounds that this represented the honest reactions of those affected.
Trivializing tragedy
In some cases, we were allowed to hear their reactions but not to see what they were reacting to.
The terrorist attack was a vicious, calculated, merciless assault not only on the buildings and their occupants and on America, but also on human decency. If you are presenting such an unthinkable thing realistically, you don’t smooth out rough edges to spare delicate sensibilities. The notion of turning the terrorism into a celebration of heroics is valid up to a point, but not if it means tidying it up so much that you take the horror and the villainy out of it.
Some of the firefighters who commented on camera during the film appeared to have done so many documentaries and news reports already that their comments seemed almost rehearsed; some even sounded scripted. There’s no need to add manufactured drama to such a dramatic, traumatic event. To do so demeans it, perhaps even trivializes it.
At the conclusion, photographs of firefighters who lost their lives were shown while a singing fireman off screen trilled “Danny Boy.” Now under the best of circumstances, “Danny Boy” evokes tears. Here the filmmakers seemed so strenuously to be going for tears-begging and pleading for tears-that perhaps you, like me, went inexplicably dry.
I’m sorry, but you just can’t make a feel-good movie about a catastrophe-at least not one as horrendous and diabolical and unforgivable and recent as this one. “9/11” was worse than mere bad television. It was bad behavior.
CBS expected 50 million to watch. An estimated 40 million did. How many cried? How many even made it to “Danny Boy” at the end? When people say “We must never forget,” they don’t just mean we should never forget the heroism of firefighters or Mayor Giuliani’s keeping his wits about him. They mean-or should mean-that we must never forget the bastards who committed this crime against humanity, the barbaric act that made the heroics necessary.