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Three New Documentaries Confront America 20 Years After 9/11

An image for Frontline's "America After 9/11." (Courtesy Frontline)
An image for Frontline's "America After 9/11." (Courtesy Frontline)

The bumpy conclusion to the United States’ “endless war” in Afghanistan has prompted some Americans to think more deeply about how and why it happened in the first place. Along with that reflection comes the inevitable question: How has the U.S. changed since 9/11?

Planned in anticipation of 9/11’s 20th anniversary, three new nonfiction broadcast programs offer different takes, each valuable in their own way. Frontline’s “America After 9/11,” HBO’s “New York Epicenters 9/11➔2021½,” a four-part docuseries by Spike Lee, and “Changed Forever 9/11,” the season five opener from the World Channel’s Stories From the Stage series, vary dramatically in focus and form. Yet the programs share the core tenet that one crisp, blue-sky morning 20 years ago has influenced everything since.

Together, the three programs depict a nation scrambling to heal from an incomprehensible blow. While “America After 9/11” takes up the response with an unflinching distillation of presidential rhetoric and policies, the collage-styled “New York Epicenters” examines the ways in which New York City has been devastated by and responded to various crises. (The series opens with the pandemic and doesn’t dive into 9/11 until episodes three and four, the last of which has made headlines for Lee’s decision to edit out interviews with conspiracy theorists.) The intimate first-person storytelling in “Changed Forever 9/11” encompasses three Americans’ unexpected reactions to different kinds of loss.

For a firm grounding in the facts, start with “America After 9/11.” In the 40th season opener for Frontline, one of the most prolific chroniclers of the 9/11 era, director Michael Kirk draws from an unfathomably vast cache of archival material. Frontline alone has produced some 94 films related to 9/11. Of those, Kirk directed 19 (and nearly 100 total films in his tenure with the series), such as several election-year installments of “The Choice” and the two-part “Bush’s War” in 2008. Many of these past titles have been newly added to Frontline’s YouTube channel as supplementary viewing to “America After 9/11” and the series’ “transparency project” adds another level of viewer engagement to the reporting process.

When making the original films, Kirk says recently by phone, “We were caught up in the politics of moment.” This latest episode avoids drilling down into party infighting or personalities and instead steps back to examine what Kirk calls a “diminished view of America in the world” and “polarization and disagreement at home.” Early on in the film, The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb calls the Jan. 6 insurrection “the logical endpoint of 9/11 era.” From there begins the work of chronologically recounting executive branch decision-making through four administrations.

In late August, Kirk returned to the editing room to add an acknowledgement of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. He says they’ve matched up images of Taliban members inside the presidential palace with those of insurgents inside the U.S. Capitol. (I saw an earlier version that did not include this update.)

However, what I did see — despite being a cognizant, critically thinking adult on 9/11 and hopefully since — was a shocking collection of known facts. Absurdist rhetoric like “axis of evil.” The creation of Guantanamo prison to evade legal accountability. Dick Cheney articulating the need to “spend time in shadows” and act “quietly without discussion.” American sanctioned (and sickly documented and circulated) torture. Donald Rumsfeld’s brushing off of the looting of Baghdad by saying that people are “‘free’ to make mistakes and do bad things.” The Obama administration’s inability to close Gitmo as promised and the intense ramping up of drone strikes. Trump. No, none of this is new, yet seeing the contradictions and indignities strung together this way left me sick and frankly a bit sleepless. (“New York Epicenters” did a number on me, too, but more on that in a minute.)

Almost immediately, the screen in “America After 9/11” splits into simultaneous but different moving images as a reminder of how televisions turned on that day and stayed on for weeks, immersing those of us who hadn’t been into 24-hour news. (At that time, I didn’t own a cellphone.) It’s an effective motif that returns throughout the film, one Kirk says was inspired by “The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968). (Naturally, he then researched how and when the technique was first used.) He wanted the approach to tell viewers, “There’s a whole lot more we have. A whole lot more going on.” Exactly. The fractured screens intentionally over-deliver information because the facts have always been available, hiding in plain sight. This documentary underscores how Americans are now likewise split against each other, despite having all the evidence we need to be unified.

If the takeaway from “America After 9/11” is to reckon with the American internal divisions that grew after 9/11, then the idea behind “New York Epicenters 9/11➔2021½” is to say that old New York remains bonded as a welcoming beacon that cares for its own. I respect that kind of pride. But it’s also what allows groups to draw lines between “us” and “them.” I’m not so sure that New York, as a symbol or as a real place, hasn’t fundamentally changed over the last 20 years.

I brought that skepticism into Spike Lee’s nearly eight-hour long series. While the first two episodes contain heart wrenching accounts of what it was like in New York during the onset of the pandemic, including the protests on behalf of George Floyd, for me, those scenes come too soon and without enough differentiation from the news I’ve followed over the last 18 months. With footage of Black Lives Matter protests on nearly every continent, Lee makes a stirring visual case for the global reach of the movement, effectively decentering New York. Yet, treating New York as a COVID epicenter without similar footage that acknowledges the pandemic’s haphazard global devastation felt nearsighted if not neglectful.

But still, I appreciated Lee’s insistence on giving his some 200 or more witnesses enough camera time to introduce themselves and even joke with him off camera. (Originally, Lee included 9/11 conspiracy theorists in the film, telling the New York Times, “I respect the intelligence of the audience." He later edited these folks out of the final chapter of the series after criticism.) The episodes trail off into unexpected territory, from poignant musical interludes (Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” stands out), to descriptions of overtaxed New York morgues or the similarities between Cuomo and Trump, the latter of whom gets way too much face time.

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By episode three, I had a sense of this series’ rhythm and was riveted by the focus on 9/11, such as learning that actor Steve Buscemi was once a New York firefighter and how joining the bucket brigade on what Lee calls “da pile” restored his faith in humanity. Regardless of whether or not New York remains unfazed and steadfast, with “Epicenters,” Lee makes a mark on his city and this era as no one else could. Just because I wasn’t ready for half of it right now doesn’t mean it won’t stand up two decades from now.

For abbreviated impact, however, I cannot recommend more strongly the 9-plus minute account by former Boston Globe and Washington Post war reporter David Filipov in “Changed Forever 9/11.” Essentially, he talks about losing his father in the first plane on 9/11. But he travels forward and backward in time and over to Afghanistan. In an interview before the segment, Filipov discusses the everyday-ness of war. That there are funny moments along with tragic moments and that he wants his stories to hit all of those notes. He succeeds here, tenfold. The two other accounts, by Bates College psychology professor Michael Sargent and therapist Jude Treder-Wolff, fill out a worthy half hour of reflection on the snap judgments and anxieties they experienced after 9/11. These feelings still overwhelm Americans today. Their ability to shape their emotions into narratives bridges the gap between the shock of the attacks and the sting that some of us, myself included, have allowed to recede over time.

Clearly, I’m not alone in wanting to turn away. But that’s exactly what’s keeping us apart.


Changed Forever 9/11” airs on Sept. 6 at 9:30 p.m. on WORLD Channel and is also available in podcast form. “America After 9/11” airs on Sept. 7 at 9 p.m. on GBH 2 and will also stream free on Frontline’s YouTube channel. The fourth and final episode of “New York Epicenters 9/11➔2021½" airs on Sept. 11 at 10 p.m. on HBO.

Correction: A quote from an interview the New York Time's conducted with Spike Lee has been clarified. 

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Erin Trahan Twitter Film Writer
Erin Trahan writes about film for WBUR.

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