Benji Wilson reviews a selection of programmes shown so far that commemorate the September 11 terrorist attacks, including The Twins of the Twin Towers (BBC One) and the George W Bush: the 9/11 Interview (National Geographic).
September 11 was the most visible tragedy in history. Apart from a few thousand people in lower Manhattan, almost all of us saw it unfurl on television. If there is a single uniting factor between the many, disparate commemorative documentaries showing this week it is that they all contain pictures of people, including President Bush, staring dumbfounded at a flickering screen.
There have already been several excellent 9/11 documentaries in the past few days, including Leslie Woodhead’s film, The Day That Changed the World (ITV1, Thursday), and there are plenty more to come, but they all start with video – specifically four pieces of footage that we have all seen many times already. The first plane, the second plane, the collapse of the South Tower and the collapse of the North Tower.
Any documentary about 9/11 cannot avoid using these images, because no matter how familiar they are, the sight of someone committing coordinated mass murder never ceases to shock.
Watching a plethora of documentaries back to back I found that, if anything, the sight of American Airlines Flight 11 crashing into the North Tower and all that followed is now even more nauseatingly hypnotic than it appeared the first time I saw it, in the old Telegraph offices in Canary Wharf, not long before we ran from the building ourselves.
The Twins of the Twin Towers on BBC One was moving and worthwhile but as the title suggests, it smacked of a documentary-maker in search of an angle. They found one – out of the nearly 3,000 people who died, 46 were twins. The film-makers tracked down six of them who had lost “their other half” and let them tell their stories. Several had grown up in the Sixties and early Seventies when the Towers were being constructed. To some the identical pairing seemed to represent their own unity with their twin, and when the buildings collapsed, so did their lives
Telling a big story through lots of little ones in this way is good history as well as acutely moving television. Essentially, though, this was a meditation on bereavement, grief and the numbness that follows. The twins/Twins trope was just a way in, serving much the same function as the children in Channel 4’s Children of 9/11, which will be broadcast this Sunday at 9.00pm and talks to 11 children whose parents died. All are trying to find something new to say about what must be, after the Holocaust, the most discussed tragedy in history. Because 9/11 was also the most videoed tragedy ever, there are reams of “unseen footage”, but whether new film clips deliver new insight is moot. On this evidence – not really. Just more pain.
Crowing about “previously unseen footage” was the sole blemish on 9/11: Emergency Room (Monday, Channel 4), which was otherwise exemplary. The Emergency Room in the title was New York’s tiny Downtown Hospital, 500 metres from the South Tower. It became the epicentre of a medical emergency it was entirely unprepared to deal with. This, in the face of a catastrophe that was compounded every 20 minutes or so by another catastrophe – the ambulances stuck in traffic, the radios breaking down, the collapsing tower destroying the makeshift triage centre – as if a plane hitting a skyscraper, twice, wasn’t enough.
Unlike the twins documentary, which showed that the truth about losing a loved one is that it will hurt deeply for the rest of your life and that’s that, Emergency Room had something inspiring to offer – the unbelievable commitment of the hospital staff and the gratitude of the people whose lives they saved. As one paramedic said, “When the chips are down, a small number of people can do an amazing amount.” This, though he didn’t realise it, was also an ironic comment on the smouldering pile of steel and concrete behind him.
What did George W Bush do when the chips were down? Well, according to him, in George W Bush: the 9/11 Interview on National Geographic last night, “I stayed calm.” Again, we’ve all seen the pictures – he didn’t look calm. He looked like a startled marmot. “Instantly I clarified my job,” he went on to the unseen interviewer. “That’s to protect people.”
More hard-nosed programmes such as the second part of Peter Taylor’s excellent The Secret War on Terror, or tonight's Question Time special (10.35pm) and Friday’s extended Newsnight (10.30pm), will offer their verdict on how well Bush went about protecting people, in the light of 10 years of war, insurgency and terrorism. This week’s television has plenty of other examples of people who stayed calm and looked to help others, while the world looked on in disbelief.