Ken Tucker
March 12, 2002 AT 05:00 AM EST

The ”9/11” film is startling, but flawed

If you read anything in advance about Sunday night’s two-hour CBS special ”9/11,” you might have been expecting something other than what was actually shown on our TV sets. Instead of a sweeping overview of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center, instead of a barrage of supposedly graphic images that had moved various politicians — none of whom had seen ”9/11” — to urge CBS to spare us horrific sights, what we got out of two hours was some remarkable videotape footage of the attack and its aftermath, wrapped around a rather ordinary documentary about a rookie firefighter.

French filmmaker-brothers Gedeon and Jules Naudet had set out, months earlier, to profile Tony Benetatos, a ”probationary” fireman from lower Manhattan’s Engine 7, the Duane Street Fire Station. In the context of the tragedy, early scenes of the extremely likable Benetatos being instructed, gently hazed, and wondering whether he’d ever see some real action struck me as interesting but predictable — the stuff of a thousand TV newsmagazine profiles. Before the terrible events, one of the Naudets — who were adopted by the Americans as co-workers and even helped cook firehouse meals — wryly remarked that all they had was ”a good food show.”

Then the terrorist planes hit the towers, and the Benetatos narrative evaporates — because as the newest guy in the company, he was ordered to stay back at the station, where none of the action was. Jules Naudet, however, went along with the rest of the Engine 7 crew, ordered by Chief Joseph Pfeifer to stick close to his side, and we did see some remarkable footage of the initial wreckage, the chaos, the quick thinking and organizational planning of these and many other firefighters and police officers.

As well-intended as it was, actor Robert De Niro’s presence as host, and the occasional use of hymns sung in Latin, actually undercut the extraordinary scenes we were shown of the efforts undertaken on Sept. 11 and in the days after. The Naudets’ footage didn’t need anything more than the brothers’ own simple yet eloquent commentary plus a background-soundtrack of silence, which would have underscored the death and danger that was all around.

I was startled to read various reports that the CBS producers who helped shape the Naudets’ work actually edited out the sound of some of the bodies that fell with loud crashes as the filmmakers recorded the firefighters’ rescue missions. To presume what might be in good taste — in this case, to decide that we could hear a few bodies falling to their death, but not the ”rain” of them, as one firefighter told us — is the umpteenth example of the way network news condescends to and insults both the victims and the viewers. Why must TV always act like a national grief counselor? Why do we always need to be lulled into comfort, rather than left deeply shaken, enlivened, or furious, when a tragedy occurs?

The middle section of ”9/11,” the part that showed the Engine 7 company and hundreds of other rescue workers in action, was, in concert with the you-are-there immediacy of the Naudets’ own brave non-stop filming, awe-inspiring. But rather than force us along in what CBS probably considered the ongoing ”healing process,” the show’s producers would have honored everyone more, and done more of a service to both news reporting and to the memory of everyone involved, had they presented this material without prodding our emotions, and let us all experience our individual mixtures of shock, rage, sorrow, and admiration without also feeling manipulated into doing so.

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