Documentaries often cast their subjects in a congratulatory light, but “The Outsider” portrays Michael Shulan, the first creative director of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, as in effect the last honest historian of Sept. 11, 2001 — a man who wanted to pose “big questions,” per the voice-over, that America might not have been ready to ask.
As the directors Steven Rosenbaum and Pamela Yoder tell it, Shulan was hired by the museum because he had become an inadvertent expert in Sept. 11 images. Shortly after the attacks, he helped turn a SoHo storefront he owned into a crowdsourced photo gallery. (The movie is weirdly vague about his background, but a New York Times story from 2001 described him as a writer.)
The documentary — shot from 2008 to 2014, the year the museum opened — follows Shulan and several others involved in creating the museum as they decide what to exhibit and how to present it. Different goals (remembrance, education, preservation) are in tension. Shulan prefers an open-ended approach, in which visitors might come away with individual impressions of every photograph. The filmmakers cast Alice M. Greenwald, who came from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and is now the 9/11 museum’s chief executive, as Shulan’s adversary: “Michael wanted to engender questions,” the narrator says. “Alice wanted to provide answers.”
Both perspectives have their purposes, but the filmmakers never clarify why they find Shulan’s vision more valid than Greenwald’s or the other curators’ — or why Shulan deserves some sort of monopoly on the memory of Sept. 11. Arguments will continue over the propriety of transforming Ground Zero into a tourist attraction. But it’s grotesque to turn that process into a monument to one man’s professional advancement.
What’s especially peculiar about the focus on Shulan is that, in other respects, “The Outsider” is an ensemble piece, distributing screen time among a half a dozen people planning for the museum’s opening. (In another miscalculation, the film relegates families of the deceased to the periphery.) During a scene in which Shulan argues with a colleague, Amy Weisser, about a particular photograph, it’s even harder to see why the filmmakers tilted the scales toward him.
The press notes suggest that Shulan emerged as the hero in the editing stage, which means the apparent self-aggrandizement shouldn’t necessarily be blamed on him. “The Outsider” might have unfolded as a dispassionate, Wiseman-esque institutional portrait, without the bizarre personality-based angle or amateurish, true-crime-doc voice-over. The Times reported last month that lawyers for the museum had requested changes for “inaccuracies and distortions.” The filmmakers demurred, but a complete overhaul is nevertheless in order.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 23 minutes. Watch through virtual cinemas.