The Day That Will Live in Synergy

CBS sticks with the president; a gossipy question about those French filmmakers.

Virginia Heffernan, Slate’s TV critic, is keeping a blog of the 9/11 anniversary TV coverage.

It’s now 366 days since the world did or did not change forever, and one day since the media—branded, merchandised, omnipresent—showed none of the discretion or restraint that some archivists found in the steely, brave Pearl Harbor anniversary newspapers.

Yesterday morning’s pageantry was covered live, to unobjectionable effect; it was mostly music and names. Last night, live coverage charged on as the president, who earlier had inspired the nation with 60 seconds of speechlessness, supplied seven minutes of truisms from Ellis Island, with Lady Liberty to his right.

Earlier, on 60 Minutes II: “The President’s Story” (CBS), viewers had gotten an intriguing Bush-eye view of Sept. 11, 2001, largely from Air Force One. “I was trying to clear the fog of war—and there is a fog of war,” Bush said, savoring the veteran’s jargon.

For her part, Laura Bush, in brown lipstick and a blue blouse, mused on the bygone disaster, but if you meet her, don’t praise her composure since on her advice you shouldn’t have been watching TV at all.

Flight 93, which aired on TLC last night, pulled out all the low-low-art stops: ominous recreations, jostling camera work, and solarized portraits of terrorists. With its references to “healing” and its kitsch effects, Flight 93 is easy to dismiss, but it tells the story of the Pennsylvania crash conscientiously, without the bigger-better-faster imperative that has amplified the New York coverage to deafening.

I have a prying question about Jules and Gédéon Naudet’s much-praised 9/11, which re-aired last night (on CBS). Two sultry Gauloise types were “old friends” with a twinkly, beefy blond American firefighter? How did this threesome meet? Moreover, over what Budweiser or vin rouge did they decide to recruit a firefighting rookie so they could make a movie about masculinity? (OK, I’m now told that the firefighter only met the filmmakers because he’s a part-time actor, which may explain his stagey voice-over.) Maybe 9/11—even in advance—really did bring us all together.

Good for the frères Naudets, however: They followed the much larger story that emerged with extreme assiduity. Their red-smoke footage from inside the towers is unavailable anywhere else.

Peter Jennings talked to eerily articulate children on ABC Kids. ABC also gave its account of smuggling uranium—unchecked—from Istanbul to New York. And finally, on VH1’s behind-the-scenes at the Concert for New York, Melissa Etheridge asked, “When is it OK to rock again?”

I don’t know. But the time has come to put such questions aside. On Sunday, the Patriots are playing the Jets.

Wednesday, Sept. 11 , 2002

“We are going to get through this,” Misty Clymer assured Diane Sawyer on ABC’s Good Morning America Tuesday morning, referring, of course, to the ordeal of legitimate succession now underway in the Miss North Carolina pageant. “This organization is about personal excellence.”

In other news, NY1, New York’s tireless local news station, provided a useful schedule of Ground Zero’s events, including exactly when bagpipes would heave and bells toll. I also got the answer to a long-standing question. A “moment of silence” is officially a minute of silence. This morning, on CNN, the mute memorial for the blow to the first tower indeed began at 8:46 and ended at 8:47. The silence was “led,” perplexingly, by President George W. Bush—who buttoned his lip and then hit the road.

We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. It hardly seems worth comparing Gov. George Pataki’s uninflected rendering of the Gettysburg Address to the version one hears in one’s head. Would that we could have had a more dashing performance by Mario Cuomo or Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Still, Pataki let the simple words speak for themselves.

Rudolph Giuliani, a string quartet at hand, then began the long recitation of the names of the dead—complex and evocative American names. Among the first ones, movingly: “Abraham,” “Adams,” and “Ahmed.”

Last night, I finally saw PBS’s technical and fascinating episode of Nova,“Why the Towers Fell.” Leslie Robertson, who engineered the World Trade Center at the tender age of 34, seemed both deeply remorseful and intellectually fearless. He addressed without guile what must be, to him, a near-unbearable suggestion: that the buildings had been built to maximize rental space at the cost of stability. Bravely he acknowledged the possibility. Nova demonstrated the strength of the skeletons of the two buildings—in contrast to the fireproofing, the drywall, and the trusses, all of which, in the force of the planes and the heat of their fuel, showed fatal weaknesses.

This morning, all of the networks and the news channels broadcast live from where those steel giants once stood. Duets of readers recited names from Ground Zero podiums. The long list of the dead droned on, distorted a little by the wind.

Tuesday, Sept. 10 , 2002

At last! On Monday, the Sundance Channel gave us what we’ve been thirsting for: single-malt moments of silence, beauty, and grace uncontaminated by treacle, tap water, or carbonation. No analysis or anthems; no crying eyewitnesses; no falling towers; no changed-foreverism. I promise.

Sundance, in its anthology of short films NY, NY, offers six short films of l’art pour l’art—chiaroscuro commuters, discount electronics shot on Super-8, the poetry of Edwin Denby read over views of shoes.It combines an ashcan aesthetic with the irresistible sunset light of Red Hook or a Dan Fogelberg album cover.

Many of the NY, NY movies are 10 or 20 years old, but some have earlier vintages, including D.A. Pennebaker’s 1953 Daybreak Express, a gorgeous beat hallucination that is sedating and energizing at the same time, and In the Street, a rapturous 1944 film about New York matrons and ragamuffins shot in part by James Agee, the writer. The New York tribute movies have so little dialogue and so much meandering music that watching them almost demands inattention, like a street scene that can only be watched idly from a fire escape—on a clear, bright city day, with no work to do, no papers to read, no rumors of war.

Sunday, Sept. 8, 2002

MSNBC aired something really weird Sunday: a doomsday documentary show taped before Sept. 11 with the name of—ready?—Target Manhattan. With the confidence of clairvoyant John Edward, intense security professionals and freewheeling fiction writers imagined, well over a year ago, a wack scenario that could level New York City.

On the one hand, you’ve got to hand it to them. These experts called it right on the fact that terrorists, somewhere, had the World Trade Center in their sights—although, to be fair, so did many observers who were born in or before 1993. What’s actually uncanny about Target Manhattan is how MSNBC’s apocalypse men anticipated in such chop-licking detail so many prefatory New York blams and whammos, including two city buses exploding; a massive suicide bomb flattening Times Square; a rental car blowing up on the Brooklyn Bridge; and finally some foreign or domestic rogues with offices in the WTC detonating a dirty bomb that brings down both buildings and leaves the air of New York thick with radiation for 100 years.

I suppose that Sept. 11, 2001, could have proceeded that way. But it did not, and the re-shoots and doublespeak voice-over that MSNBC has used to update the old doc—essentially communicating, “our oddballs got part of it right, sort of; we’re sorry to air this, but what the hell”—make it clear than they were right to shelve the tape in first place. This year, instead, they should have called on Sens. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman (who appear far too briefly in this show) to talk honestly about why Washington failed to guard against precisely the kind of security disaster that, ironically, has been the stock and trade of American TV producers, novelists, moviemakers for years.

Saturday, Sept. 7, 2002

“I don’t mean to interrupt the fun,” Howard Stern apologized, as thousands of America’s other morning entertainers slowed to a trot … then a walk … then a halt. The show wouldn’t go on. Or it would. Or it had to because that’s American courage; or it had to because no one here knew how to do anything else.

This procedural debate—which has stymied both producers and consumers of pop images and music for much of the past year—forms the centerpiece of MTV’s intelligent After 09.11: Pop Life Goes On, which the channel is airing frequently these days. The show, produced by MTV’s sharp newsman Jim Fraenkel and hosted by easy uncle Kurt Loder, is an evocative mosaic of cultural fragments. On display are shards of videos, commercials, music, movies, theater, tabloids, interviews, graphics—the gaudy, the meretricious, the unexpectedly wise.

MTV, in its own wisdom, faces head-on the question of what should show biz do, which is the question that is dogging this whole screwy week of commemorative TV. “The time of fun and waste has gone,” Mohamed Atta wrote. “The time of judgment has arrived.” True or not? MTV faces the frigid proposition with sophistication and, better still, with dynamism and nerve. 1:12 p.m.


All right, all right—I believe in Viewer Dread. I may even have Viewer Dread.

Last night I tried to hold fast to the proposition that elegiac TV need not be circuslike. In vain. I kept being distracted by grim promotions for Nightline’s“Survivors,Part II,” which showed glimpses of two people who had been seriously burned in the attack on the Pentagon. This was not kitsch at least. But it was terrible to behold. Faces on-screen were green and red; clumsy hands were livid and shiny, patched with skin grafts. Physical therapy seemed exhausting, and the platitudes used to keep up the good work of healing rang hollow.

The show began with a self-congratulatory spiel about why ABC, sensitive naturally to Viewer Dread, had opted not do a “comprehensive” show about Sept. 11 on Friday (they’re saving that one) but would instead revisit an earlier story of Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell and former Pentagon staffer Louise Kurtz, both of whom are recovering from crippling injuries. Since last September, the two have been struggling to get along with their spouses and learn how to use spoons.

What followed was a draining small-scale documentary about this past year—two sad stories. Birdwell seemed outwardly chipper but vibrating with anger. Kurtz may have been more frank and likable, but she was extremely burnt out on OxyContin.

Shows that stick this close to the medical and psychological details of the survivors—or the dead—are too private for this very public anniversary, which demands a greater invocation of the nobility, or at least pragmatism, with which we must now surmount our hard luck. I couldn’t find anything like that on TV last night. As physical therapists unfurled Birdwell’s near-atrophied fingers and Kurtz’s surgeon proposed a new finger to amputate, the show made me ache for these two, while also sharing their deep doubt that no one can actually ache for anyone else. 11:20 a.m.

Friday, Sept. 6, 2002

Next Wednesday, HBO will re-air In Memoriam: New York City, 9/11/01, the channel’s near-perfect rendering of the worst day in the history of New York City. Produced with the intimate cooperation of Rudolph Giuliani, the documentary delivers a blow-by-blow diary in the voices of the mayor and his pointpeople. It is a vivid reminder that hundreds of city employees, themselves aghast and overwhelmed by the smoke and fire, were required not only to comprehend the blow to Manhattan but to oversee a citywide response to it—at very, very short notice.

Visually In Memoriam is original and riveting, from the peculiar angle on the plane slicing soundlessly into the first tower; to the images of people outrunning the flood of smoke as it appears to chase them; to the footage shot from inside the lobby of one of the buildings after it had been hit. For anyone not sick with foreboding, the expansive, minimally designed entrance looks like any big lobby on a workday. Watching now, we know that those revolving doors, that polished floor, and those security guards are about to be crushed to dust.

The drawback of In Memoriam is that it doubles, if understatedly, as the Giuliani administration’s call-to-arms and federal fund-raiser. As Giuliani repeatedly boasts, he knew, and knew early, that terrorists were to blame for the attack on the towers—and that the attack was not just on New York but an attack on the “economic freedom” and “American dream” for which the twin towers stood. New York’s injury, in other words, is an American injury. The city needs all the funds you can give it, Mr. President.

The show closes with flags and a lousy rendition of the lousy song “God Bless America,” which briefly threatens to undermine the clean, honest storytelling that dominates the rest of the program. But forget that part; “God Bless America” is short. Think back instead to what TV news does well: It can evoke powerful emotions worth remembering in tranquility. A program like this one reminds the viewer not just of Sept. 11, but of who he or she was on that day. In the case of In Memoriam, that half-forgotten state of mind comes through in the strangled animal voices that, while watching the city burn, say only, oh my god oh my god oh my god.

Thursday, Sept. 5, 2002

Of all the responses that Americans have had to Sept. 11, it seems safe to say that the least worrisome is the one that TV programmers are calling Viewer Dread. According to reports in media journals, sufferers of Viewer Dread aren’t grief stricken, afraid, or angry. They aren’t thinking about death or war at all. Instead, they are preoccupied with the grave question of what the TV networks plan to do about next Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2002, and the days leading up to it. Will the ratings-ravenous executives create too many star-spangled graphics to mark the anniversary of the attacks on America? Will they play “Amazing Grace”? Will the programs be sophistic, fraudulent, stupid?

I haven’t met anyone with full-blown Viewer Dread, however, and I suspect the dread actually belongs more to programmers than to viewers. That makes sense: I wouldn’t want to be forced to produce memorial TV—or, just as riskily, to stay the sanguine course with Elimidate and Anna Nicole. So the chutzpah of documentary veterans like Helen Whitney, whose emotionally go-for-broke program “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero” aired on PBS on Tuesday night (to be rebroadcast on the 11th), is itself admirable. Co-produced with the venerable series Frontline and written with lovely precision, “Faith and Doubt” juxtaposes beauty shots of tides and golden clouds with warmly lighted mourners and holy men discussing the problem of evil. How can there be evil in God’s world? Maybe there’s no God. Or maybe there’s no evil—and the pilots of the lethal planes one year ago were just going through some very hard times.

To be fair, not one of the rabbis, priests, imams, scholars, and psychologists consulted is decisively of the second opinion, though that easily ridiculed thesis, from sociology’s golden age, is paid lip service (perhaps at the behest of the interviewers). All but one of the documentary’s VIPs contend that God exists. He either has mysterious designs or profound limitations, and by such characterizations we can begin to imagine how to both watch enormous buildings fall and hold on to hope.

In the show’s conceit, these questions were occasioned or at least intensified by the events of Sept. 11, and in particular by the attacks on New York (the Pennsylvania plane crash and the attack on the Pentagon are not mentioned). But the level-headed sages on the show—a broad cast that includes the English novelist Ian McEwan, the American opera singer Renée Fleming, and the Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya—seem to require some prodding to act as though they are considering these questions anew. In fact, the problem of evil is as old as theology itself; the question about what to believe in times of mass murder achieved its current articulation half a century ago, after the Holocaust. If “Faith and Doubt” is any evidence, the question and its answers haven’t changed much since.

But Frontline also offers proof that there is little to dread if the week to come is filled with shows like this one—elegant and ruminative TV designed, in Dante’s words, to make you grieve. Don’t watch if you can’t bear it or if television, to you, is inherently reductive; but if you are drawn to the memorial shows, you may see what you need to see. What affected me most about “Faith and Doubt” were the dozens of shots of the lattice ruins of the towers in clouds of smoke, in storm, in sunlight. The cracked, torn steel that, until it finally was pulled down, still suggested the towers’ great heights is now captured definitively on film.

By contrast, the remarks about faith and doubt are forgettable but soothing; and it’s somehow reassuring to know that no one’s mind has leapt too far ahead of one’s own on theology’s great problems. We’re molecules. We’re souls. We live forever. We’re good and evil. Whatever you’re thinking on these subjects this September, “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero” will confirm that you’re wondering just what people wonder and have always done.