To sum this documentary up in a few words is next to impossible. Every fiber of your body tells you that this is not happening right from the opening montage of rapid-fire images, through to the last shot of the clean up at Ground Zero, but every frame is real. The story was thought up by two French brothers living in New York. Jules (28) and Gideon (31) Naudet (pronounced "Nau-day") want to make a documentary on New York City Firefighters, beginning with a "newbie" from the academy and follow him through the nine month probationary period to full-fledged firefighter. Seeking the help of their close friend, actor James Hanlon (36), an actor and firefighter at Station 1, Engine 7, the Naudets sift through the "Probies" at the academy and find one, Tony Benetakos to focus the bulk of their documentary on.
Tony becomes the butt of jokes and slowly learns the ins and outs of station life through the members of this close-knit family. Firefighters have a superstition about "Probies." It is that they are either "White Clouds" or "Black Clouds," meaning that with the latter, all kinds of fires follow the "Probie." The former means that very little fire activity follows, but one day, there will be the mother of all fires. Tony is a "White Cloud." After some initial growing pains, Tony settles into the firehouse as if he were a seasoned vet. Then the unthinkable occurs....
September 11, 2001 begins with a clear blue sky and an early morning call to go and see about a supposed gas leak not far from Wall Street. Because Jules has had little camera experience, Gideon hands a camera to his younger brother and tells him to ride with the chief, T. K. Pfeiffer. Arriving at about 8:42, the firefighters begin to use their gas detectors over a grate. Then the sudden roar of what seems to be a low flying airplane rips past the scene, and as Jules pans upwards, we see the first strike of the day. American Airlines Flight 11 smashes into the face of the North Tower of 1 World Trade. Pfeiffer orders his men into the fire engine and they head for the World Trade Center. Once there, Jules asks to accompany the Chief into the tower. Pfeiffer tells Naudet to stick close to him. Once inside, the full impact of the growing disaster begins to show on the faces of the men whose sole purpose is to save lives.
Gideon Naudet decides to leave the firehouse and walk down to the impact area. Once there, he captures the impact of the second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, with 2 World Trade. He knows Jules is with Chief Pfeiffer inside the towers. Watching and capturing the crowds' reaction to the unimaginable, Gideon begins to capture on tape the growing fear in Lower Manhattan. Inside tower one, Jules records the last view the world, or loved ones will have of their sons, fathers, uncles, grandfathers, husbands, boyfriends, friends as one by one, each firefighter, carrying 60 lbs of equipment begin the long arduous climb up 80 stories to rescue the injured and trapped. Jules also catches the last glimpse Chief Pfeiffer will have of his brother, Kevin, as he leaves to do his selfless duty. Also caught on video is the gutwrenching sound of falling bodies hitting pavement from victims choosing to jump from the higher floors above the impact zones, sooner than face death at the hands of the flames and smoke. But Jules is respectful, never once does he capture a sensationalistic moment...the money shot. His work is professional through his baptism of fire. He also catches the sight of debris falling from tower two after it is hit by the second plane and the ordered way the firefighters evacuated civilians from the building. Then Jules is caught in the collapse of the south tower and the first official victim is taken: Father Michael Judd, the Chaplain for the fire department. Then as Jules and Chief Pfeiffer make their way from the fallout of the collapse of tower two, tower one begins its structural collapse.
What results is a breathtakingly, poignant view from inside Ground Zero as Jules and Gideon work separately to document that day. Not knowing if either is alive, each fearing the worst. As each firefighter arrives at the firehouse, they greet each other with joyous hugs at having made it back. And in one moment of overwhelming emotion, Jules and Gideon are reunited. As Jules cries on his brother's shoulder, Gideon embraces his younger brother as Hanlon makes the filmmakers the subject. There is one fearful moment when Tony Benetakos, who left the station with a former chief, is believed to have been lost...but returns to the fold, this "Probie" has proven himself.
Shown with only three interruptions, 9/11 is a stunning achievement in documentary filmmaking. It ranks up there with the Hindenburg footage in showing history as it unfolds. The Naudets are to be commended for their deft handling of the subject. In lesser hands, the tendency would be toward the sensational, but the Naudets temper their eye toward dignity and compassion. Narrated by Hanlon, we get the feel of his words as he takes the audience through the events of September 11. Robert De Niro hosts the program in a sombre, restrained way. He never seeks the camera for his own glory, rather he lays out the scenes you are about to see. I also commend CBS for their bravery at airing this special. Chastised for their attempt at grabbing ratings, they temper their editing toward the emotions of the relatives of those who perished. This is a must see for anyone who needs to be reminded of what true heroism is. It isn't about dribbling a basketball, or selling an album of hate lyrics...9/11 is about humanity at its best. Heroism at its finest and the cost of freedom.
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