The TV specials for the Sept. 11 anniversary offer any number of ways to return to hell. There are wrenching interviews with survivors and with those whose loved ones died; uplifting stories of rescues and agonizing stories of those who perished in the attempt; footage of the conflagration, chaos and shock, as seen on morning newscasts and in the ash-blanketed streets; images of the first responders and volunteers digging through wreckage.
A clarification: I actually took those descriptions from this newspaper’s review programming for the 10th anniversary. But they apply just as well this year, for the 20th.
In documentary after documentary, on cable, streaming and broadcast, you can hear, over and over, the air-traffic-control distress calls. You can see, again and again, the stunning footage of an airliner slamming into the north tower of the World Trade Center, captured by a documentary filmmaker accompanying firefighters on a routine call. You can be reminded, time after heartbreaking time, what a beautiful, blue-sky September morning it was.
The interview subjects have aged. Time has passed. The children who fled schools or lost parents that morning are now grown adults. (Two different documentaries, on the History Channel and Discovery+, focus on them.) But the story, as told, is mostly the same.
Twenty years later, is there anything still to say about Sept. 11? Of course; it would be unimaginable to simply ignore it. A tougher question is: Is there anything more to say than there was five, 10, 15 years ago?
There is. But actually saying it can be riskier.
TV’s treatment of Sept. 11 has changed over the years, in bits and pieces. The adrenaline rush of “24” gave way to the moral grayscale of “Homeland.” MSNBC finally ended its grim tradition of replaying the live coverage of the attacks. But the general approach of the memorial specials, tightly focused on honoring the loss and sacrifice of one discrete day, has kept a kind of ritual familiarity.
For 20 years, the refrain has been: Remember, remember, remember. Memory is so ingrained in the language of Sept. 11 — “Never forget” — as to imply that it is obligatory, and sufficient, for future generations merely to remember by revisiting the narrative and imagery of one terrible day, rather than to connect it to the years of history that followed.
But is Sept. 11 simply a day, or is it an era? Was it the beginning of something or a continuation? You can divide most of the anniversary specials between those that focus closely on the day that the towers fell and those that pull back, way back, to look at what emerged from the dust.
There are plenty of the former kind. On National Geographic, the four-part series “9/11: One Day in America” reassembles in granular detail the horrific experience of that morning. (It’s streaming on Hulu — all the programs mentioned here are currently streaming unless otherwise noted.) A special episode of “60 Minutes,” premiering Sept. 12, revisits the stories of firefighters who survived the catastrophe, and those who didn’t.
Apple TV+’s “9/11: Inside the President’s War Room” interviews George W. Bush and former members of his staff about the decisions and chaos of that morning, with scant reference to any decisions — say, the invasion of Iraq — that followed. And the seven hours of new 9/11 programming on the History Channel include “9/11: Four Flights,” about the aircraft that crashed into the towers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, and “9/11: I Was There,” based on amateur video (both premiere on Sept. 11).
These remember-the-day documentaries tend to be heartfelt and reverent; they are often meticulously researched and assembled. (I cannot speak for “Long Island Medium: In Memory of 9/11,” the TLC special, premiering Thursday, that promises to bring families messages from the spirits of their lost loved ones.) They have the benefit of two decades of fact-finding. But for years now, it’s been hard for anything to match the immediacy and urgency of “9/11,” the film by Gédéon and Jules Naudet — the brothers whose intended firefighter documentary produced that famous tower-impact shot — which aired on CBS in 2002. (CNN will re-air it on Sunday.)
Focusing on the emotion and heroism of one day, of course, avoids getting ensnared in everything that came after. It sticks to what we can all agree on. It’s safer, in the way that it’s safer to teach the Civil War or Jim Crow as horrors of the past instead of events on a continuum that reaches into the present.
The other approach is to decide that 20 years, a full generation, is long enough to treat the terror attacks as part of a larger historical era.
Sept. 11 is not only in the past, as you can see in the bloody news from Afghanistan. For viewers who want to unpack how the attacks led to two decades of military entanglements, there’s Netflix’s five-part “Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror,” which looks unsparingly at the intelligence failures before Sept. 11 and the mission creep through multiple administrations. Enlighteningly, it includes the voices of Afghan leaders and civilians. Sept. 11, as an epoch, meant upheaval for more than one nation.
But the history of Sept. 11 goes far beyond war and foreign policy. It affected domestic politics, domestic enmities and even American culture.
That last is the subject of the smart and surprisingly cathartic “Too Soon: Comedy After 9/11,” premiering Wednesday on Vice. The attacks have lately breached the tragedy-plus-time barrier on sitcoms — this year, both “Dave” and “Girls5Eva” featured jokes about album releases poorly timed around Sept. 11 — but “Too Soon” digs into comics’ early attempts to engage the shock of the moment and the divisiveness of the war on terror. Its voices include Gilbert Gottfried, who famously stunned his audience with a 9/11 joke at the 2001 roast of Hugh Hefner, taped only a few weeks after the attacks. “Comedy and tragedy are roommates,” he says.
And two of the anniversary’s most striking documentaries present Sept. 11 as an event that struck at America’s democracy and even its soul.
The “Frontline” special “America After 9/11,” premiering Tuesday on PBS, is driven by a striking video juxtaposition. First, on the Capitol steps the day of the attacks, a chorus of members of Congress, Republican and Democratic, senators and representatives, join to sing “God Bless America.” Two decades later, on the same site, a mob besieges Congress in an attempt to overturn the results of an election.
It’s a provocative connection, but the filmmaker Michael Kirk lays it out economically: The attacks set off a chain of action and changes — military quagmires, suspicion and racism at home, the loss of trust in institutions — that demagogues used to undermine democracy, and that fulfilled Osama bin Laden’s goal of dividing and weakening America.
From the beginning, the special argues, America’s response was driven by paradox: the moral rhetoric of President George W. Bush and the strategies of his vice president, Dick Cheney, who said that American would need to work with “the dark side” to survive.
The dark side won, “America After 9/11” argues. It won when specious claims of weapons of mass destruction rationalized war in Iraq; when images of torture emerged from Abu Ghraib prison; when illustrations of Barack Obama as bin Laden circulated; when the media fed hysteria about terror threats; and when the 2016 election was won by a candidate who said, “I think Islam hates us” and used similar rhetoric for people he labeled domestic enemies.
In this light, the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol — with its racist language and its fantasy of reclaiming America from a shadowy existential threat — was, says the former Obama aide Ben Rhodes, “the logical endpoint” of the 9/11 era.
But the most sweeping — and, I expect, ultimately the most memorable — of this year’s documentaries is Spike Lee’s elegiac, messy and feisty “NYC Epicenters: 9/11-2021½,” airing in four parts on HBO.
As the title suggests, “Epicenters” is only partly about 9/11, and it makes a strong case that the 9/11 era can only be captured with the widest lens. It works backward, starting from the Covid-19 pandemic and moving — through Black Lives Matter, the 2016 and 2020 elections and more — to its starting point. In Lee’s telling, Sept. 11 is not just a matter of terrorism but also the opening act to decades of calamity and uproar.
If it seems like a stretch, “Epicenters” soon makes it difficult to see the subject otherwise, drawing connection after connection across the years. There is Rudy Giuliani, “America’s Mayor” in the days after the towers fell, spouting election-hoax fan fiction at Four Seasons Total Landscaping. There is the rash of Islamophobic attacks after Sept. 11, echoing in the xenophobia of the Trump era. There are emergency medical workers suffering from 9/11-related illnesses that loom as pre-existing conditions during the pandemic.
Sept. 11, in Lee’s telling, is itself a pre-existing condition. It is not a one-time injury but a chronic affliction, and other, pre-pre-existing conditions express themselves through it as well. New York came back from it, and, “Epicenters” insists, it will come back from Covid. But in his crowning image, Lee likens that comeback to Marlon Brando’s bloodied stagger at the end of “On the Waterfront.” Each blow leaves a mark.
“Epicenters” uses clips from a lot of films to evoke the city, from “On the Town” to the 1976 remake of “King Kong” to Lee’s own work. Lee’s memory of New York, like many people’s, is a blend of lived experience and fantasy. And sometimes the exaggerated language of film is the only thing that can capture larger-than-life experience; as the series notes, people describe Sept. 11, over and over, as being “like a movie.”
Lee’s interviews — with hundreds of people, from high elected officials to heavy-equipment operators at ground zero — are warm, emotional, sometimes sparring. He ribs every Red Sox fan he talks to; when his subjects need time to collect themselves, he lets the moments play out. For politicians, he lets the raspberries fly freely (the captions refer to Donald J. Trump, in the words of the rapper Busta Rhymes, as “President Agent Orange”).
One could argue over which director is most essentially New York. But Lee’s passionate heckler’s breed of New York-ness may be the best suited to this subject. He is loving and critical, impulses that New Yorkers know as synonyms. And his focus on diversity and race helps him find less-heard voices in a much-told story, like those of the Vulcan Society for Black firefighters, or of the Black flight attendant who guilty recalls “racially profiling” a Saudi passenger after Sept. 11.
Unfortunately, “Epicenters” has made the most news for what you won’t see in it: an extended, bizarre section in the original final episode that gave credence to the conspiracists who theorize that the towers were brought down by a controlled explosion. Lee snipped the entire section, and despite the blunt edit, the shorter final cut, which premieres on Sept. 11, actually flows better.
I could imagine a version of “Epicenters” that still covered the conspiracy theories, not to legitimize them but as an example of the paranoia that thrives in a country lacking social trust — which Lee rightly deplores when it comes to anti-vaccine theories and the election hoaxes that drove some of the Capitol assailants.
There’s a sobering meta-lesson in the fact that the most artful of this season’s Sept. 11 documentaries became an example of one of the very problems it diagnosed. But at least the resolution shows that criticism can make a difference, and that it’s not too late to look at history seriously and make a change.